What Is the One Needed Thing That Mary Chose and Martha Missed?

What Is the One Needed Thing That Mary Chose and Martha Missed?

Mary and Martha paint a vivid picture of two very different siblings. Busy Martha was a hostess at heart. In Luke 10:38-42, we see her welcoming Jesus into her home (something she did on more than one occasion). While Jesus taught his disciples, Martha bustled about her kitchen, working hard to prepare a meal worthy of her King. Driven by a taxing to-do list, Martha’s many acts of service left her anxious and distracted.

In the other room, Mary took a different posture. She joined Jesus’ disciples on the floor, sitting at his feet as a learner. Enraptured with this Teacher, Mary hung on his every word. She, in contrast to her sister, seems the picture of peace. Even when Martha accused her of laziness and told Jesus to make her come help in the kitchen, Mary stayed quietly in her seat.

Then Jesus came to her defense. “‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:41-42).

When reading this passage, it’s important to remember both women loved Jesus. Both called him their Lord (Luke 10:40, John 11:32). Both offered him their worship — Martha through her hospitality, Mary through anointing his feet with perfume (John 12:1-3).

When Jesus corrected Martha, he didn’t condemn her or say her service didn’t matter. Instead, he pointed to the turmoil in her soul. Her restless heart revealed a deeper issue — she was missing the point of following him.

We, too, can easily get sidetracked, confusing busyness with fruitfulness, thinking Jesus wants our service most of all. But the sisters’ encounter with Jesus points to a different way of walking out our faith.

What Is the One Needed Thing That Mary Chose?

Jesus boiled down what really matters to a single decision — but what is it? 

Was it Mary’s choice of simplicity over Martha’s fancy preparations? Did Jesus praise her because she made room for him in her busy schedule? Are we to follow her example by making sure we have a daily quiet time with God? While these are important practices in the life of a Christian, a closer look at the big picture of Jesus’ ministry points to something fundamentally different.

Martha was busy doing things for Jesus, while Mary focused on receiving from him. 

Ultimately, the one thing Mary longed for was Jesus himself. Centuries earlier, the psalmist David expressed a similar heart cry, “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). The apostle Paul later echoed the sentiment, “I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

Mary, David, Paul, and others had a single-hearted passion to know God deeply. And in gaining him, they received the source of their souls’ satisfaction. 

As Charles Spurgeon said, “If you have the Holy Spirit, you virtually have all good gifts, for the Spirit is the earnest of God’s love, the pledge of joys to come; and he brings with him all things that are necessary and good for you.”

What Do We Receive from Him?

Throughout his time on earth, Jesus called people to come to him and receive all he brings to the relationship. This isn’t a one-time experience, something we merely accept at salvation. On the contrary, he beckons us to cultivate the habit of turning to him continually.

In John 7:37-39, Jesus invited thirsty souls to come to him for living water — the ongoing life source that flows from his Holy Spirit. As we enjoy continuous fellowship with him, he produces his abundant life within us.

In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus called to the weary and burdened, offering rest for their souls. By learning from him and getting to know his heart, we experience the inward peace Mary enjoyed as she sat at his feet. 

In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul described an astounding exchange — Jesus took our sin and in return, he gave us his goodness. When he perfectly kept God’s law, he did it as our representative. Through faith in him, we’re not only forgiven, but we also receive credit for all the good works he did.

Also in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul taught that we receive a new identity when we place our faith in Christ (verses 17-18). No longer should we define ourselves by past failures, others’ opinions, or the work we do. We are friends with God, reconciled by the work of his Son. We’re beloved children who have confident access to his heart and his ear (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:5-7, Ephesians 3:12, Hebrews 4:16).

In John 15:4-8, Jesus explained that we receive the ability to bear his Spirit’s fruit through our connection with him. Being loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled — these virtues aren’t up to us to produce for God. Instead, through our yielded lives, his Spirit freely bears his fruit in us (Galatians 5:22-23).

In 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, God declared that he’s given each of us a beautiful life purpose. Ours is the joy of helping others find friendship with God, too.

In Philippians 4:19, Paul proclaimed that from God we receive the satisfaction of all our needs. Do you lack wisdom? Go to God (James 1:5). Strength? Draw from God (Philippians 4:13). Provision? Ask God persistently (Luke 11:5-13). Healing? Look to the God who has healing in his wings (Malachi 4:2).

What about Serving Him?

Mary discovered that Jesus called her to relationship before service, but this doesn’t mean she sat idle every day. All through his Word, God calls us to action, instructs us to be diligent, and warns us to take seriously the spiritual battle in which we’re engaged. Ours is not a complacent faith.

So how does this relate to receiving from him instead of doing for him? How can we live busy lives from hearts at rest?

The core issue depends on where we look for our source. Are we trying hard to be good for God? Do we measure our spiritual health by the number of commitments on our calendar or disciplines we maintain? Are the opinions of others (or our own expectations) the standard by which we live? If so, we’ll likely burn out or grow deeply resentful along the way. The soul rest Jesus promised will be an elusive dream. We’ll find ourselves trapped in a Martha kind of restlessness.

If, however, we continually return to Christ as our source, learning to wait on him and draw upon him for our every need, we’ll find the inner peace Mary experienced at Jesus’ feet.

An old hymn entitled Channels Only beautifully describes the life of a fruitful believer living from a heart at rest.

“How I praise thee, precious Savior,
That thy love laid hold of me;
Thou hast saved and cleansed and filled me
That I might thy channel be.

Channels only, blessed Master,
But with all thy wondrous power
Flowing through us, thou canst use us
Every day and every hour.”

As a pipe merely carries water, as a lamp shines light drawn from an outside electrical source, so Jesus invites us to live from the overflow of his Spirit’s filling. He’ll do his work through us, but it will be just that — his work. And we’ll experience the joy of a life lived beyond ourselves.

Two Ways of Relating to Him

In Mary and Martha’s story, we see two patterns of relating to Jesus. Martha related to him as a servant while she busied herself with all she wanted to do for him. Mary related to him as a disciple. With single-hearted devotion, she longed to be near him — listening, learning, receiving from him as she enjoyed his companionship. 

We, too, can choose how we’ll relate to Jesus. Will we be content to serve him from a distance? Or will we repeatedly draw near, listening for his voice, learning from his heart, and joining his work as we live out of the overflow of our relationship with him? 

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Meredith Mills headshotMeredith N Mills writes about letting go of the try-harder life through knowing God’s heart and resting in his grace. She’s passionate about helping wounded and weary Christians build (and rebuild) authentic, life-giving faith. You can download her 7-day devotional, Flourish: Devotions from the Garden to Help You Thrive, and subscribe for her email devotions, Multifaceted: Reflections on the Heart of God, at MeredithNMills.com/freebie-library. She’d love to connect with you on InstagramThreads, and Facebook.