Only One Thing!

8th Sunday after Pentecost (07-18-10)

By Rev. Steven D. Spencer- Pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church

Luke 10:38–42


Grace, peace and mercy from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen!


Last week we heard about a lawyer who put Jesus to the test asking Him, "Teacher, what thing must I do to inherit eternal life?" We learned that if you ask a law question you get a law answer. The questions we ask are shaped by our life experiences and vocation. Jesus answered the expert at the law with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Today’s scripture, the story of Mary and Martha, comes right after the parable of the Good Samaritan. Today’s lesson is a counterpoint to it! Just like we tend to ask questions based on our life experiences and vocation, so we tend to hear things based upon our life experiences and vocation. We filter the results and act upon them as if they’re truth. We even taint the very Word of God. That’s why Dr. Luther coined the phrase Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone interprets Scripture. Today’s Scripture helps us to understand the parable of the Good Samaritan and keep it in proper Scriptural perspective.

I believe that both Mary and Martha were present at the synagogue when Jesus shared the parable of the Good Samaritan. And I think Martha was moved into action by the parable she had heard. You see, Jesus had just told those around him to care for those in need. The next thing we read is that Martha and her sister are inviting Jesus and his disciples to stay with them. This doesn’t seem like the safest thing to do, but then maybe she’s going out on a limb, trying to “go and do likewise” as Jesus had said to the lawyer.  And so now please listen again carefully to our text.

And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. 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." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, 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" (Luke 10:39-42). So far the text.


Sometimes people are too busy to listen. An old "Dennis the Menace" comic strip illustrates this so very well. Dennis wanted to tell his parents something important. But he just couldn't get their attention. They were too busy cleaning out the closet and doing other choirs. Dennis even rang the doorbell. Finally, out of total desperation, he deliberately dropped his mother's prized crystal vase on the floor and broke it. Then, and only then, did his parents finally listen to him.

There are many parents who don’t listen or say "later, don't bother me right now". There are lots of people whose busy lives don’t allow them much time to visit elderly parents. There are many corporations so busy trying to capture new markets and make bigger profits or just trying to survive that they don't listen to the complaints, problems, suggestions or even their employees. Many times people are so busy with their careers, their recreation, their retirements, their plans, their businesses, that they don't have the time to listen to God and His Word. Sometimes even our churches or fellow Christians are so wrapped up in programs, plans, and ministries that they no longer include Jesus or listen to what He says.

In our Scripture passage we also have someone who’s too busy to listen. Her name is Martha. It seems that she had 13 guests for dinner. Martha was in a frenzy of activity trying to entertain and feed her guests. She was so busy serving she didn't have the time to converse with her guests. Even more important, Martha didn't have time to listen to Jesus; she was just too busy. She was so busy preparing the meal and serving that she didn’t take time to hear the words of her Master.

Verse 40 says it all: "Martha was distracted with much serving." The Greek word translated as "distracted" literally means "to be pulled, dragged from all around." It’s like someone being caught in a riptide. You can swim with all your might against it but it will still move you farther and farther away from where you’ve entered the water. It will wear you out. Martha's work, her whirlpool of activity, had dragged her away from Jesus and His word.

Martha wanted to listen but she was just too busy. She wanted to listen but was too distracted by what she believed was necessary, being a good hostess. I bet she was great at what she was doing. It was her vocation but you see it was also her weakness.

In direct contrast to Martha was Mary, her sister. Verse 39 tells us that Mary "sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said." It was customary in the Middle East for students to sit at the feet of their teacher. So, like a student, Mary sat at the feet of the Great Teacher, Jesus. By the way, in Israel, at that time, women were discouraged from getting an education either at school or in the synagogue or Temple. But Mary wanted to learn from Jesus and was eager to learn. Notice Jesus doesn’t discourage this action.

But Martha doesn’t seem to appreciate it. While running back and forth she notices her sister sitting down with Jesus. Here she is so busy serving 13 guests and her sister was sitting down listen to Jesus. So Martha went to Jesus and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me" (verse 40).

How fair and proper this request sounds. Surely Jesus is embarrassed by Mary's lack of hospitality and service. Certainly He sees how Martha runs around and will tell Mary to help out. This only seems right. This would be our reaction, but that isn't Jesus’ response.

Did you notice what Martha said? According to her, "my sister has left me to serve alone." In other words, Mary had been helping but now she thought it was more important to sit down and listen to Jesus. She had been working; she had been serving, but now she said "enough," took off her apron, and sat at Jesus' feet to hear His Words.

So, in reply to Martha, Jesus said, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.” Martha is worried and upset. These words indicate a worldly attitude, a preoccupation with the things of the world; these words indicate that a person's attention is upon the material realm rather than the spiritual realm; these words indicate that Martha is more concerned about feeding Jesus, and looking like a good servant while doing it, than by being fed by Jesus and His Word.

What is said about Martha can be said about most of our nation today. The attention of most people today is away from God and upon the world and the material realm. People today, like Martha, are worried and anxious; they are concerned, not about God and the things of God, but about money, jobs, homes, cars, vacations, and recreation. As proof, consider this: 92% of all Americans say they believe in God; yet, only 37% attend church every week. Most people today are more concerned about their possessions or their work than about God and the state of their souls.


Jesus told Martha she was worried and anxious but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, and it would not be taken away from her. What does Jesus mean by that? We must be careful to not conclude from this example, that it is better to sit still than to work. We know of one such church, the church of Thessalonica, where the people did just that, they sat around talking about the return of Christ. St. Paul had to tell them to get to work for God hates and despises all forms of laziness.

Yet, work can kill a person. Being busy with this or that can kill a person. That happens when a person, like Martha, is too busy to listen to Jesus. So Jesus says, "Martha, Martha ... only one thing is needed." What is this one thing? It’s hearing Jesus. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ”, Romans 10:17.

Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more important than listening to Jesus. He (T) is the Word and He produces faith. That’s the "only thing needed." But I'm afraid that we as a church can so easily get caught up in the "Martha syndrome." As a church we can get so caught up in church programs and board meetings, budget and synodical issues, or just keeping up the property, that we forget the number one thing. Like Martha we can get distracted with much serving. As a church, our number one thing has to be listening to Jesus. And you do that by being in His presence, like right now and right here. The works are a byproduct of faith and the not producers of it. Work flows out of faith and not vice-versa.

Individuals get the Martha syndrome too. There’s always so much work to do. There are always so many activities to be involved in. But let's not become like Martha who got distracted with much serving. Rather, let’s take time out every day to listen to Jesus and to get to know Him better, by reading His Word, by attending a Bible Study and by regular worship services.

Our Lord knows our needs. He knows our need for food, clothing, shelter, recreation; He knows we need to pay our bills; He knows there’s work that must be done. However, there might be good reason for Christ to look at us and to say, "... only one thing is needed."

Sometimes we need to stop our head-long rush through life and ask ourselves, "What is really necessary? What do I really need?" Martha should have asked this question. Martha thought it was necessary to give her guests the royal treatment, so she went all out to show service rather than listening to Jesus. She had to be told this really wasn’t necessary. A loaf of bread would have probably been enough for her guests.

What do you think is really necessary? What do you think you need? It must be pointed out that not everything we consider to be necessary are really necessary. Most Americans consider a TV, a micro-wave oven, a computer, and a cell-phone to be necessities. Many Americans think that having two cars, a boat, a camper, and an annual trip to Disneyland to be necessities. Workaholics think that a 16 hour work day is a necessity. But none of these things are really necessary.

What is necessary is listening to Jesus.  “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). To hear Christ you must be in His presence. Here in His church is where He is present for you. For here you receive His Word, into your ears through the preaching and Holy Absolution, and into your mouth through His Holy body and blood, and into the font through His life, death and resurrection you receive His Word. “For the Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us”, and He is still here.

For Jesus is here to forgive through the means He has provided. Therefore you can know beyond a doubt that through Jesus and in Jesus, all your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, you have His (T) Word on it. In Jesus name, amen and amen.

The Peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, AMEN!