The One Thing Needed

The One Thing Needed

This morning’s passage—following immediately after the Good Samaritan passage we considered last week—focuses on two sisters who, along with a third sibling, a brother, were part of a family that Jesus loved—Mary and Martha are the sisters and, though he isn’t mentioned here, Lazarus is an important third sibling in this family.[1] There are a total of three recorded stories about these siblings in the New Testament. Chronologically the one from the Gospel of Luke is probably the first instance with John’s Gospel recording the other two. Additionally, the accounts of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were known in the early church. So, for example, in the story of Lazarus being raised, it states that the Mary mentioned (John 11:2) is the one who washed Jesus’ feet (John 12:3). Similarly in the account of Lazarus dining with Jesus (John 12:1), it says that the Lazarus mentioned is the one whom Jesus had raised from the dead (John 11:43–44). And in John 11:5 Scripture further states, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister—[that would be Mary]—and Lazarus.” So these three were known and loved by Jesus and thus were known to others in the early church due to their encounters with and closeness to Jesus, our Lord.

In this brief account from Luke, we’re told that when Jesus and his disciples came to the village where the sisters lived,[2] “Martha opened her home to him” (38) so she seems to have had the valuable gift of hospitality. Then we’re immediately introduced to her sister, Mary, about whom we’re told that she “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (39). I confess that right from the get-go I’m drawn to these two women—to Martha for her gift of opening up her home to others; but also to Mary since the point being made is that she wanted to learn the teaching being provided by none other than Jesus himself! In this culture, a disciple’s proper place was at the feet of their master[3] and this is where we find Mary—listening at Jesus’ feet. Who wouldn’t want to sit at his feet and listen to and learn from what he said?

Now Martha “was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (40). Though we’re not told what preparations she was involved with whatever they were, it is clear that she expected her sister, Mary, to help her out. Martha seems a bit put out by Mary who has left all the needed preparations for her to tend to while Mary got to sit and listen to Jesus. So Martha “came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’” (40). Martha’s tack sounds like an adult version of one sibling going to their parent and complaining about the other sibling’s refusal to do her chores. And who better than Jesus to force Mary to get with the program and help out her overworked—at least from her perspective—sister?!

But Jesus’ response to Martha demonstrates his concern for both sisters, beginning with Martha—as we’ve already noted from John, Jesus loved all three of these siblings. A few weeks ago when we looked at Elijah’s being taken up by the LORD, I pointed out that this account contained an example of a “repetition of endearment,” a term coined by Dr. Stuart. In that instance, Elisha, Elijah’s spiritual son in the LORD who would take his place as prophet to Israel, cried out when he saw Elijah being taken by the chariots and horsemen of Israel, “My father! My father!”[4] This repetition—“my father, my father”—is the repetition of endearment and is an indication of just how close these two men were. In our passage from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ stating Martha’s name twice similarly indicates a closeness and tenderness between Jesus and Martha. His rebuke—if it is a rebuke—arises out of his love for Martha. So he begins by repeating her name, “Martha, Martha,” as he then points out, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one” (41–42). In speaking to Martha like this, Jesus has provided her with an opportunity to listen to him even as Mary had. He provides her with an opportunity to be his disciple and learn from him. And part of that teaching, though it may have been difficult for Martha to hear in the moment, was this: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (42). In other words, what Mary ends up learning from Jesus will always stay with her but, too, this may be Jesus’ gentle way of telling Martha that he won’t do as she has asked. He isn’t going to tell Mary to help her out with all the needed preparations because Mary has chosen what is better.

So what is the “better” that Jesus is referring to here? Well it may be tempting to try and make the “one thing needed” mentioned by Jesus as a kind of fill-in-the-blank that can vary from person to person. So my “one thing needed” may differ from Richie’s “one thing needed” may differ from Marilyn’s “one thing needed” may differ from Bob’s “one thing needed.” As I read this passage, I couldn’t help thinking about the comedy City Slickers (1991) in which three men having a mid-life crisis try and find themselves by participating in a two-week cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado. In one of the conversations between one of these men, Mitch (played by Billy Crystal) and Curly (played by Jack Palance), the trail boss, the following exchange takes place—and since we’re in church, I’ve substituted part of the dialogue! Curly is the first speaker:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [He holds up one finger] This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean [a word for human excrement] [s***].
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”

Curly: That’s what you have to find out.

Much of the remainder of the movie is spent with each of the three men having their mid-life crisis trying to find out precisely what the “one thing” is for them.

So is this kind of enigmatic meaning given by Curly what Jesus, too, is suggesting? Is it up to each of us to figure out our own understanding of the meaning of life—especially as we undergo mid-life or other kinds of crises? Is it up to each of us to try on different things—to go after different pursuits—until we find the one thing needed? I don’t think it is. In fact, I think this and other passages in Scripture make clear that the “one thing needed” doesn’t differ for each of us but is in fact the same for all of us. And that “one thing” is to know and love God and each other. And there are a number of reasons why I say this.

First, as already stated, Mary’s position at Jesus’ feet indicates she is learning from him who is not only her teacher but also her God. This is why she is commended. It isn’t because hospitality is bad—we’re called to be hospitable to others—but hospitality can be simple, leaving us time to enjoy those we’re serving. And, in this instance, leaving us time to learn from our Savior. By choosing to learn from Jesus, Mary has chosen what is better.

Second, some translations state that Mary chose “the better portion” instead of simply what is better—and “the better portion” is actually a more literal translation of the Greek [τὴν ἀγαθὴν μερίδα]. And this phrase may hearken back to an Old Testament teaching, namely that the LORD is our portion.[5] So, for instance, we read in a number of psalms:

Psalm 16:5: Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;you make my lot secure.

Psalm 73:26: My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 119:57: You are my portion, Lord; I have promised to obey your words.

Psalm 142:5: I cry to you, Lord; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”

This notion of God being our portion is common in the Old Testament. For God to be our portion is for him to be our inheritance. It’s to place our trust in him. It’s to acknowledge that we are weak but he is strong. It’s to acknowledge that he knows better than we do how we should live our lives—and so to commit ourselves to obey his words. For God to be our portion is to realize that all that God is and has is already ours. So when Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen what is better, he is reminding her about the proper order of the Greatest Command—before we can properly love and serve others, we must first love and serve God and learn from him.

Third, when Luke states that Mary was at the Lord’s feet listening to him, she is doing what our heavenly Father said to those present both when Jesus was baptized and at his transfiguration in the presence of Elijah and Moses, namely: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”[6] Listening to Jesus is precisely what Mary is doing. And for this she is commended by him.

And fourth, it’s possible that Luke has intentionally placed this account about Martha and Mary immediately following that of the law expert’s questioning of Jesus regarding what is needed to inherit eternal passage, the passage we considered last week. In that passage, Jesus answered a follow-up question of who our neighbor is by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan—which point was that every person we come across is our neighbor therefore we are called to love all people. In this passage, it may be that the other part of the Greatest Commandment, loving God, is what is being highlighted as illustrated by Mary learning at Jesus’ feet. To love God is to learn from him.

So it isn’t the case that the “one thing” that is needed in life is a “fill-in-the-blank” with what makes the most sense to you, but rather the one thing we all need is to know and love and learn from God. And once we have this relationship with God, it can never be taken away from us. As Paul reminds us,[7] “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Brothers and sisters, in other words, nothing in heaven or on earth—in this life or the next—can ever separate us from the love, from a relationship with, the eternal God who made us, the eternal God who loves us with his eternal love.

But we are a forgetful people so we have to be reminded in Scripture, time and again, of what our true priority should be. In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), Jesus teaches, “19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Again, I think we are being reminded here to make God and his kingdom—God and his priorities—the one thing needed in our lives.

And, later in the same passage, Jesus says “28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Again, the one thing needed is seeking and living out God and his priorities.

And Luke, too, speaks of Jesus’ teaching about our real treasure: “32 Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.[this is our portion, our inheritance] 33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[8] This, again, is the one thing needed.

In his epistle to the Philippians (chapter 3), Paul similarly states, “8 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 and be found in him.”

Brothers and sisters, a key result of the Fall is that we no longer know the one thing needed to live a fulfilling life. Adam and Eve, before taking of the forbidden fruit, literally were living in paradise. They experienced and enjoyed perfect fellowship with the God in whose image they were made; they experienced and enjoyed perfect fellowship with one another; they experienced and enjoyed perfect fellowship with the creation over which they were commissioned by God to be stewards—to tend and care for it.

But since the time of the Fall, apart from God’s working in our lives, we no longer even know that our greatest joy and purpose in life is to be found in the God who made us for love, first and foremost with himself, but also with each other and finally as stewards over this world. Instead we assume that the one thing needed is whatever we think will bring us the most happiness. So we put all of our energies towards gaining material prosperity—or physical pleasures of various sorts—or pursuits that isolate us from God and others. But “the one thing needed” is the same for all of us. We have all been made in God’s image. The one thing that gives meaning to our lives hasn’t changed but is shared by all of us. So each generation still has to be taught that the one thing needed in life is to know and love and follow the God who made us—the God who loves us—the God who desires a relationship with us—the God who knows that our greatest joy in life is to be found in having a relationship with him and with all others who have been made in his image.

If Scripture is right—if the one thing needed is an intimate, loving relationship with our Maker and with each other—then no matter what we actually end up doing with our lives, we can be content. If we know and love God and each other, then being a homemaker can be a joy; if we know and love God and each other, then being a student can be a joy; if we know and love God and each other, then blue collar or white collar or no collar jobs can be a joy; if we know and love God and each other, then being retired can be a joy. Now notice that I’m saying can be, not necessarily will be. And I say this because life can be hard. Even those who know and love Christ and each other will still experience the effects of the Fall. Even those who know and love Christ and each other will experience unemployment—and illness—and other types of suffering—and death. But these realities and remnants of the Fall are also the reason why we need God and each so desperately because undergoing difficult times can be made a little less difficult with the love and support of others. As Paul states in Romans 12, we’re called to “15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; [and] mourn with those who mourn.” So when we take part in the joys in each other’s lives, the joy is multiplied; and when we take part in the sorrows in each other’s lives, the burden of those sorrows is lessened and shared.

In his letter to the Philippians[9] Paul indicates, essentially, that he has learned and lives the “one needed thing.” Listen to these words he shares with the Philippian church: “10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Paul knows that the one thing needed in life doesn’t revolve around success or material comfort. He knows that the one thing needed is to turn to God in Christ in any and all circumstances and to receive help from—and to help—his brothers and sisters in Christ as the opportunity presents itself.

Isn’t this why we heed God’s call to gather and worship each week—that we might be reminded of his love for us? That we might know his fellowship with us? That we might own that together we are his family and that he calls us to love not only him but also each other?

Brothers and sisters, let us ever with Mary choose the better portion; let us ever choose to read and study and meditate upon Scripture that we might better learn what God is like and seek a deeper relationship with him;

Let us ever be mindful that if we choose a relationship with God and with each other, whether rich or poor, whether we live or physically die, this better portion will never be taken away from us, not in this life nor in that which is to come.

Let us remember that along with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, we too—the Linebrook branch of God’s eternal children—are part of a family that Jesus loves not only now but for all eternity.

Let us pray.








[1] Only the Gospel of John mentions this Lazarus (chs. 11–12). (vs. the “Rich Man and Lazarus” who is a different Lazarus).

[2] Bethany is where the three siblings lived, per John 12:1: Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. NIV notes also state (Matthew 21:17 notes) that Bethany was “a village on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about two miles from Jerusalem and the final station on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.

[3] Crossway. See also Luke 8:35: When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.; Acts 22:3:  “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. [ESV states “at the feet of Gamaliel”].

[4] 2 Kings 2:12.

[5] Crossway, for a similar idea with different wording, see. Psalm 27:4: 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. See also Joshua 18:7: The Levites, however, do not get a portion among you, because the priestly service of the Lord is their inheritance. And Gad, Reuben and the half-tribe of Manasseh have already received their inheritance on the east side of the Jordan. Moses the servant of the Lord gave it to them.

[6] This version is from Mark 9:7 [transfiguration]: Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” See also: Matthew 3:17 [baptism]: And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 17:5 [transfiguration]: While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” Luke 9:35 [transfiguration]: A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

[7] Romans 8:38.

[8] Luke 12:32–34.

[9] Philippians 4:10–13.

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