The One Thing
Passage: Luke 10:38–10:42
The One Thing
Several years ago, I read an article asking this question – “What is the greatest hindrance toward cultivating community in a church?” That’s a very good question, isn’t it? “What’s the greatest hindrance toward building community in a church?” And the answer in this article might surprise you. The answer wasn’t the creeping effects of secularism. It didn’t mention the divisiveness that so often accompanies our hyperconnected world. No, the greatest hindrance, this article said, was busyness – a frenetic approach to life that keeps us from investing in things that take time and intentionality to cultivate.
And that’s true, isn’t it? I know that’s the experience of my life, and I bet it’s yours as well. We spend our days running from one thing to the next, and before we know it, we’re crashing into bed thinking, “Where did the time go?” There is simply so much to get done – so many needs to meet – so much service to offer.
And here’s what it gets difficult. Much of our busyness is taken up with good things. It is good to work hard. It is good to be informed on current events. It is good to provide a well-rounded home for our children. It is good to practice wise stewardship of things God has provided. It is good to serve. All of those are good things! And still, when you add them all together, there is no time left.
And so, I would say that article was spot-on, but I would make one addition. It’s not just community that is hindered by all the distractions and busyness of life. It’s every aspect of the Christian life that is hindered. Even most foundational calling for us as Christians – to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength – even that great commandment takes the one thing we seem unable to spare – time. We’re distracted with so many good things, we can’t seem to slow down for the main thing.
But that’s where today’s passage speaks with some much-needed wisdom. It’s hard to envision a timelier text for our day. Here we find Jesus confronting the exact issue we’ve been talking about. Two sisters – Martha and Mary – welcome Jesus to their home. One sister is busy with preparation, while the other sister quietly spends her time with Jesus. And that’s really the summary view of the text. In a few verses, Luke draws a masterful contrast between two ways of life. One way of life is so taken up with good things that it misses the best thing, while the other way is just the opposite. The other way of life – the one that is quiet and simple – that way of life focuses on the one thing and receives Jesus’ commendation. It’s a timely passage, isn’t it? For folks like us who live on the margins, there is a world of wisdom found in this contrast between the two sisters.
As we look now at the details, it is important to note where this short scene falls in the flow of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die for the salvation of his people. And on this journey, Jesus continues to teach about discipleship – what does it mean to follow the Lord by faith? Last week, you may recall, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was prompted by the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” Remember, though, the lawyer already knew what the Law required. He knew that the greatest commandment was to love God, and the second commandment was like it – to love your neighbor as yourself. He already knew the answer, so Jesus’ parable was the illustration of that second commandment. The parable of the Good Samaritan showed what it looks like to love your neighbor.
Today’s passage picks up at that point, but now, the illustration is of the first and greatest commandment. Here we see what it looks like to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. The two passages are working together to give us a well-rounded picture of discipleship. And what we learn today is that according to Jesus, there really is this one thing that is necessary.
So, in terms of an outline, our approach today is pretty simple. There are three figures in this scene – Mary, Martha, and Jesus – and we’ll note an example from each one, focusing on discipleship, distraction, and finally patience.
The Priority of Discipleship
We begin, then, in vv38-39, where Mary’s life shows us the Priority of Discipleship. Luke gives us the setting in v38, as Jesus enters a village where Martha welcomes the Lord to her home. That’s an important point. Martha welcomes Jesus. Think back to earlier in the chapter when Jesus sent out the Seventy-Two. Remember how he told them to stay with those who welcomed them, with those who received the good news of the kingdom. Martha here in v38 is an example of such a warm reception. She welcomes the Lord. And this will prove significant later in the passage when Jesus has to correct Martha’s perspective. Yes, Martha has some things to learn, but she is not an adversary. She’s not opposed to the Lord. Martha welcomes Jesus, which indicates that she too is on the road of discipleship.
But here at the outset of the passage, the focus is on Mary rather than Martha. Before we learn what Martha is doing, we get to see Mary, who is presented here as an exemplary disciple. Notice where we find Mary, v39 – “And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” Now, on the one hand, it is a bit surprising that we find Mary occupying this position. In Jesus’ day, you did not typically find women sitting at the feet of a teacher, listening to what he had to say.
But at the same time, perhaps this is not as surprising as we might think. Consider the tenor of Jesus’ ministry so far. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus’ ministry calling the unexpected. His first disciples were fishermen, not religious experts. He welcomed tax collectors and sinners rather than the self-righteous and elite. Even the passage right before this one, it is a Samaritan whom Jesus puts forward as the example of showing compassion. It’s all unexpected.
Yes – according to the customs of Jesus’ day, it is unusual that Mary would be here, but at the same time, it’s also not that unusual. This fits with what we see in Jesus’ ministry. As Rodrigo read from Colossians 3, in Jesus’ kingdom, the focus is not on external markers like ethnicity or class or gender. Jesus’ disciples are defined as those who hear and respond to God’s Word.
And that is what should stand out most prominently about Mary. It’s not that she breaks cultural customs. It’s that she’s committed to hearing Jesus’ word. That’s the example. This is what defines a disciple. To be a disciple is to hear and trust and treasure Jesus’ word. I want you to note two words in particular in v39 – the words listen and teaching. What did Mary do? She listened to his teaching. She heard Jesus’ word. Those are the significant points in v39 – listen or hear, and teaching or word.
Now, when you zoom out and look for these two words – listen and teaching – together in other places in Luke’s Gospel, you get a clearer picture of what a stirring example this is. In Luke 5, for example, Jesus’ first disciples listen to Jesus’ teaching, and they respond. Disciples are those who respond in faith to Jesus’ word. Or, Luke 8, the parable of the sower – the good soil is the one that listens to the teaching – to the word – and follows it by faith. Fruitfulness comes from hearing God’s Word. Or, again Luke 8, who are Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters? Not merely those in his physical family, but those who listen to his teaching and follow it. Or, later in Luke 11, to whom does true blessedness belong? To those who listen, Jesus says, to his teaching and follow it. Do you hear the theme? Listen to the teaching, hear the word – that’s the heartbeat of discipleship, and it’s what Mary models here in v39.
And so, I would describe Mary’s example like this. The context of the passage appears to be a dinner, as we’ll see in a moment. There’s a lot of activity, and there is a lot that needs to get done. And yet, what is Mary hungry for? Not a well-prepared meal, as delicious as that might be. Mary is hungry to hear the word of the Lord. That’s the takeaway. Disciples are hungry to hear the word of the Lord. In fact, disciples put away all other concerns in order to hear and trust and treasure the word of the Lord.
Brothers and sisters, is that how you think of God’s Word – as the food you need for spiritual life and growth? Jesus himself quotes the OT and says that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Mary gets that. Do you? Do I? Food, as you know is necessary for life. We don’t make a practice of skipping meals because if we did, we would eventually start to break down. We’d lose strength and stamina, and we would not have the fuel we need to live and work each day. We don’t try to live without our daily bread, but how often do we try to live without God’s Word? Think of that word necessary. Do you see God’s Word as necessary – as indispensable to your spiritual health?
But not only is food necessary. It’s also satisfying. Laura made a delicious meal on Wednesday this past week, and it was satisfying to eat. I finished with that sense of “Ah, yes, that was so good.” God’s Word is like that as well. It is satisfying to the soul. That’s perhaps what stands out most about Mary in this passage. She’s not struggling between two options here – should I stay here with Jesus, or should I go focus on other things? She’s not in doubt. Why? Because she’s enthralled with the word of the Lord. For disciples, that’s the nature of God’s Word. It’s not only necessary; it’s also satisfying. It tastes good, and it gives life to the soul.
Do you believe that, brothers and sisters? The best case that I can make for you to build your life on God’s Word is not an argument from discipline or duty. It’s an argument from satisfaction. It’s an argument from life, from joy, from souls that are full with the treasure that is the Lord’s Word. The most profoundly joyful and satisfied Christians I have ever met are the ones whose lives are most deeply anchored in God’s Word. They’re the ones like Mary, who put aside all the other things to feast on what the Lord has to say.
Friend, if your heart is hungry today for something more than the frenetic life of this world, go to God’s Word. If your discipleship seems weak and lacking strength, go to God’s Word. Follow Mary’s example. Make your priority hearing the Lord in the Scriptures, and then treasuring what he says. This is the priority of discipleship – to hear and trust and treasure the Word of the Lord.
Now, as compelling as Mary’s example is, the reality is that we probably have as much to learn from Martha as we do from Mary. Like we said at the outset, life is very full, just like it was for Martha in v40. And so, from Martha’s life, we see this second lesson for disciples, and it is the Danger of Distraction.
The Danger of Distraction
V40 presents the situation in clear relief. Martha is very busy, which produces some frustration that then spills over into a complaint. Notice again, v40 – “But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’” It’s not hard to imagine what has happened here. Jesus is a guest in Martha’s home, so, as you would expect, she is focused on the preparations for his visit, very likely a meal.
But the problem, at least according to Martha, is that she is doing all the serving by herself. You can hear the frustration in Martha’s voice. It’s almost accusatory. “Do you not care, Jesus, that I’m doing everything and Mary is doing nothing? Tell her to help!” But in running herself ragged, notice what Martha is not doing. She is not sitting at the feet of Jesus. She complains about Mary, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that Mary misses the main thing because she’s caught up with other things.
Now, at this point, it’s important to emphasize that Martha is distracted with good things. It is good to show hospitality to Jesus. It is good to desire to serve him. It is good to provide a meal. This is key. What keeps Martha from Jesus’ feet is not something immoral or evil or wicked. That’s not the case at all. What distracts Martha is, rightly defined, something good.
And that is precisely what makes this distraction so dangerous. It’s subtle, isn’t it? Dark, sinister things stand in stark contrast to the things of God, and therefore, the danger they pose is much clearer to spot. But it’s the good things that we make into ultimate things – that’s where the danger of distraction comes in. It’s subtle. Notice what Jesus says, v41 – “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.’” That is a picture of life in 2020, isn’t it? Anxious and troubled. How many of us can relate? The idea is to be unduly concerned with the needs of the moment. You’re controlled with the stuff of the tyrannically urgent now. It’s an attitude that is disproportionately focused on many things, which in turn leads you to miss the one thing. It’s an approach to life that piles up all the areas of service, but in doing so, ends up missing the meaning that ought to shape that service. That’s what Jesus means here by anxious and troubled. Martha misses the one thing because she’s distracted and troubled by many other things.
Let me try to give an example of what this might look like in our lives. I use my phone as my alarm clock, so when I wake up each morning, I have to pick up my phone and turn off the alarm. Now, what else do I have on my phone? My email. What is the natural thing to do right after I turn off my alarm? Check my email, right? Because checking email is what important, busy people do. And very often, when I check my email, I’m made aware of some need or some opportunity that could use my attention. These are not bad things, mind you. These are good things. Sometimes they are hard, and sometimes I know that meeting the need will be taxing. But the needs are not immoral or evil or wicked. Very often, they are good ways for me to serve others.
And yet, checking my email first thing also changes the outlook of my day. Think about it. What is now framing my perspective on the day? All those needs I have to address! And more often than not, the result is that before my feet even hit the floor, I’m a bit anxious and troubled about all the stuff to get done, all the things that I need to do. In fact, my entire day then takes on an urgent, “let’s go – gotta get things done” sort of attitude.
And here’s the problem. Do you know what that kind of start to my day does? It tends to crowd out reflection on God’s Word. It tends to dull my ability to meditate on the Scriptures. Sure, I still read the Bible, but what am I really thinking about? That meeting I need to set up, or that conversation I need to have, or the umpteen other things that today simply demands I have to get done. And so, with a mind that is now full of anxiety and trouble, God’s Word tends to go in one ear and out the other.
Can you relate? I’m sure you can because this is how distraction works. Very subtly, we give our focus to good things, only to find that those good things quickly become ultimate things that obscure the one thing. It could be trying to do too much. It could be aiming to do things perfectly. It could be living at the margins because there are so many opportunities for good stuff. Or, it could be comparing yourself to someone you admire and thinking you’ve got to pursue the things they pursue because their life looks so good. Whatever the specifics, the reality is many of us are like Martha. We’re anxious and troubled about many things – most of them good! – and therefore, we’re like ships that have lost their ballast. We so easily unsettled, tossed to and fro, quick to complain, all the while missing the one thing that would keep us steady.
The Patience of the Lord
What do anxious Marthas like us need? What is the remedy for troubled hearts that have turned so many good things into ultimate things? The answer comes in the third and final point in the text. We need to see and respond to the Patience of the Lord. The first thing we should note about Jesus’ response is how patient and tenderhearted he is. Look again at v41. Remember, Martha has essentially accused Jesus of not caring about her, so Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.” The repetition of Martha’s name is a tenderhearted response. It’s an indication of Jesus’ kindness. He’s the Good Shepherd, remember, so when one of his sheep is troubled, his first step is not to chide or heap more burdens on her. Rather, Jesus is patient. He’s tenderhearted.
Brothers and sisters, we cannot be reminded of this enough. If you are a Christian – if you belong to the Lord Jesus by faith, his inclination is always one of kindness toward you. His disposition is always patience. Yes, he corrects us, and he leads us to see where we need to change, just as he’s about to do with Martha. But even when he brings that correction, the Lord does so with infinite patience. He’s tenderhearted toward his people, and that should be an encouragement for us to come to him in times of need. One of the Evil One’s most sinister lies is to tell Christians that the Lord Jesus doesn’t care, that he doesn’t take seriously their troubles. Don’t believe that lie, brothers and sisters. What we see her with Martha is a living example of Jesus’ patient, tenderhearted care for his people. And that means you can come to him with confidence, and he will not cast you out.
But that’s not all we should note from Jesus’ response. Yes, he’s patient with Martha, but that patience then takes the form of extending her an invitation. This invitation is also a correction, but nonetheless, it invites Martha to think differently about her life. Note once more Jesus’ word in v41 and on into v42 – “you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” That’s the correction. Jesus is telling Martha – “Don’t get hung up on the many things, even though they’re good. Live for the one thing.” Which, of course, raises this question – what is this one thing?
Jesus’ commendation of Mary provides the answer. What is the one thing that is necessary? It’s what Mary has chosen. It’s the priority of communing with the Lord, listening to his teaching, and responding to his Word. That’s the one thing – to love God by feasting on his Word in faith. And this one thing will not be taken from Mary.
That is an invitation to Martha. Jesus is calling her to embrace what we might call the simplicity, the freedom even, of the life of faith. Martha doesn’t have to live this anxious and troubled life. She can simply and faithfully prioritize communion with God. “The meal is spread before you, Martha,” Jesus says. “Join us. Come and feast with us, and find satisfaction for your soul that answers your troubles.”
Now,1 I want to be clear at this point. Please don’t misunderstand Jesus here. This is not Jesus’ way of saying that we can ignore all our other responsibilities and just focus on spiritual matters. This is not Jesus advocating for a monastic withdrawal that skips out on the stuff of life. Rather, this is Jesus reminding us that when we live for the one thing, all the other good things stay in their proper place. When we prioritize communion with God, all those other good things are put in a fresh perspective.
The reality is that at its core, the Christian life does have a simplicity that ought to lead to freedom. We feed on God’s Word, we commune with him in prayer, we fellowship with the saints in worship, and we serve in the places where God has placed us – our homes, our churches, and our jobs. We do those things faithfully over the long haul, and that’s the Christian life, brothers and sisters.
When we are rightly focused first on knowing the Lord, our hearts are then prepared to entrust all the other cares of life to him. I used the image earlier of a ship without a ballast, and I want to come back to it here. A ballast is what keeps a ship steady as it sails. It’s the weight that gives a ship the freedom to actually navigate. A ship without a ballast can’t actually sail. It tends to go with the flow, getting pushed wherever the current of the moment is strongest. Ships need a ballast to keep them steady and on course. For believers, communion with God through his Word is the ballast of the Christian life. It’s the commitment that frees us to be faithful with all the good things, but at the same time, it also keeps us on course so that those good things don’t become ultimate things.
All of that to say, brothers and sisters, there’s an invitation here for anxious, troubled Christians. It’s the call to embrace the simplicity of the Christian life – a simplicity that leads to freedom and even greater faithfulness in the things that matter. So, we say it so often from this pulpit, but we’re going to say it again – Press on to know the Lord, brothers and sisters. Press on to know him – through his Word, through prayer, and through the worshipping life of the church.
And when those moments of trouble and distraction come, remember how the Lord Jesus dealt with Martha. He is patient, brothers and sisters. As you come to him and to his Word by faith, he will provide what we need. He will hold us steady, even when our hearts are troubled. Amen.