When I was a teenager, I was in a church play entitled, “A Little Dinner Magic,” loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s story of Martin the Cobbler. In the play, a modern American family finds out that Jesus will be coming to dinner. In their haste to make all the preparations, they end up bickering with one another. Their perfectionist determination keeps them from giving attention to the visitors who show up at their door: people in need who the family doesn’t have time or inclination to help. Finally, Jesus speaks to them and reveals that He was there all along, that he showed up at the door in the form of strangers. Hanging their heads, the family understands that in all their distraction, they missed the One Thing that matters most.
What would you do, if you found out that Jesus was coming to dinner? What would I do? When I have guests at my house, I’m usually the last one to sit down to dinner. I’m busy running around, making sure that everybody has what they need, because I think a lot about the value of hospitality. But in all the taking care of my guests, I can sometimes forget about my guests.
Jesus’ friend Martha was the same way. In Luke 10:38-42, the Lord and all twelve of his disciples stop by the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Martha complains to Jesus that, with all the preparations that need to be made, Mary isn’t helping. She’s simply sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him teach. Jesus surprises his hostess with his response: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her (vv. 41-42 ESV).”
Let’s not be too harsh with Martha. After all, Jesus isn’t. His answer is tender and compassionate. With great love he calls her by her name twice. He is concerned about the things that concern her. He is aware of the great burden of hospitality that thirteen men place on the household. When Jesus says that Mary has chosen the good portion, he isn’t saying Martha has chosen the bad part—only that Mary has chosen the better. He says that she is worried and upset over many things, but only one thing is necessary. What do you think that “One Thing” is?
The first thing that he might mean is that she is so busy preparing many different dishes, and only one thing is necessary (like a casserole). Certainly, hospitality has its priority—but there is a degree of extravagance that prevents a person from truly enjoying time with their guests. Perhaps Martha is busy preparing many things, but Jesus would rather she kept it simple so she too could sit and visit like her sister.
There may be something else that Jesus means by “One Thing.” Martha is likely so desperate for Jesus’ approval because she feels herself unworthy to sit at His feet. Only one thing is needed: a sense of her own value that doesn't need someone else's validation. She’s rushing around trying to make Jesus happy by her good works, and doesn’t even realize that Jesus is already happy with her. We can be the same way, trying to please Jesus so much that we forget that he is already pleased with his children, and just wants us to spend time with him.
There is another factor at play here, contributing to Jesus’ “One Thing.” Martha is trying to manipulate her sister by using Jesus, rather than going straight to Mary herself. Jesus was a big believer that if you have a problem with someone, you should take it up with them and not gossip to other people about it. Only one thing is needed: Honesty about her feelings. Jesus wants us to be honest about our feelings as well. It’s tough to say the hard things that need to be said to our loved ones, to take ownership of our own hurt feelings and disappointments. But if anything is going to change, we need to be honest about the way we feel.
Finally, Martha is so preoccupied with material things that she can't focus on spiritual life. Only one thing is necessary: spiritual priority. It’s easy for us to become so focused on this physical life—the earthly demands that take up so much of our attention. But Jesus wants us to sometimes be more like Mary, who has chosen the better part. Mary knows that it’s okay to focus on the spirit instead of the flesh, and Jesus wants us to know that as well.
In the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal plays a man named Mitch who is having a midlife crisis. He and his friends take a trip to a dude ranch to find themselves. Jack Palance plays a grizzled guide named Curly. In a teachable moment, Curly asks Mitch, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” He holds up one finger and says, “This.” Mitch asks, “Your finger?” Curly replies, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [squat].” Mitch asks, “But, what is the ‘one thing?’” Curly smiles and says, “That's what you have to find out.” I think that Jesus is pretty much saying the same thing to Martha, and he says the same to us as well.
We want to make God very complicated with our systematic theologies and high-pressure sales, our works-based salvation that imagines we have to somehow pleased God either by how much we do for him or how well we behave. But God is simple, uncomplicated, straightforward. God only asks that you be present in the moment and take the opportunity that is provided to love Him and follow Him. In Psalm 46:10a, the Lord says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” This is the simplicity, the “One Thing” to which Jesus calls us. I pray that, like Mary did, and like Martha learned, you will be able to be still, and know.