One Thing is Needed: Thoughts on Mary & Martha


Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’s feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”

And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”- Luke 10:38-41

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Sometimes, if we only glance at it, Jesus seems to be picking on Martha in this Gospel reading. So it is good to remember that, along with their brother Lazarus, Mary and Martha are both saints. Each was a servant to Christ and remained devoted to him throughout their lives. No doubt, he loved everyone in their family dearly and equally. Like any sisters, Mary and Martha probably had a little bit of a rivalry. But the variety in their personalities meant that each brought different strengths to the way they related to and interacted with the Lord.

Notice that Martha welcomed Jesus into their home, and was dedicated to serving him and making everything the best it could be for him as their friend and guest, as their Lord and teacher. In addition to her gift for showing hospitality, she is clearly a woman of action. Action and diligence are certainly keys to a faithful life. With all these things considered, there is much to imitate in Martha’s example.

Martha was right to want to use her talents to prepare for Jesus and his visit. Her issue was never her service. It was that she became distracted and troubled with the many things on her plate. It was that she fell into the trap of comparison. And in the midst of the blessing she had been anticipating so greatly, she had not paused to enjoy and be thankful for the present moment. And who can’t relate to Martha? I compare myself to others constantly, often miss out on the [very apparent] gifts in my life, and can hardly be awake without being anxious and troubled about many things.

So Jesus was not so much making an example of Martha as helping her gain perspective. One thing is needed. I have often puzzled over this. Mary was doing several things. She was present with Jesus. She was focused. She was listening to his words. What is the one necessary thing she was doing?

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Rather than falling into the traps of distraction, comparison, and worry, Mary had chosen friendship with Jesus. Martha certainly loved him, and no doubt she was motivated by at least in great part by her love to make the house ready for his visit. But somewhere along the way, she seemed to forget the material point: he was already there, in their midst, waiting to spend time with her and her family.

I was once  lamenting my difficult grasping a teaching of the Church related to Mary, the mother of Jesus- and I was going round and round with my priest about the hows and whys and what-ifs when he looked at me and said in his typical, matter of fact way, “She is a person, not a theological concept. Get to know her as you would a person.”

The same, of course, is true for Jesus. It’s very easy to throw around the phrase “relationship with God” or “relationship with Jesus” without actually cultivating one. Like Martha, I become so focused on my checklist, on getting to a place where I am “good enough” or “ready enough” to pray or go to Church that I forget it is possible to pray at any moment. I treat Jesus like a theological concept for me to understand the ins and outs of, without contemplating what he is like, what makes him happy, what hurts him, or the unique gifts with which he fills my life on a daily basis.

We have the friends we do not because of fear, obligation, or because we have reasoned our way to an understanding that the friendship is the correct choice. We are friends because of the bond we share with them. The love that we experience with our friends is what keeps us coming back to one another. We want to get to know them, we ask them questions, we tell them thank you, we give them the gifts of our time and attention. We are not quick to doubt them, and we are certainly not afraid that at any moment they will leave or abandon us. We trust them. And when we are having trouble with that trust, we talk through it. We don’t walk away at the first misunderstanding. And the more loyal and loving a friendship is, the more we are willing to do to grow and nurture it.

Mary had the one thing that was needed, a desire to be friends with Jesus that she put into action. Her contribution was a small one, but Jesus recognized the beauty in it. And he held it out to Martha, not to chide her, but as a gentle reminder that her company was wanted and valuable.

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