One Thing is Needful

This Lenten Sermon is from 1965. To learn more about the history behind it, click here.


Christ in the House of Martha and Mary / Johannes Vemeer

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. 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 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; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42 (RSV)

Dear friends in Christ:

Today’s text takes us into a home in the town of Bethany. The scene is so much like home that one can imagine it without difficulty. This is the home of Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus, famous for its hospitality; a home where Jesus and His disciples always received a warm welcome. Many times they may have traveled miles out of their way, or made a great detour, in order to enjoy the hospitality offered by these three devoted and dedicated friends. This may have been so especially toward the end of our Lord’s sojourn, when opposition grew stronger, when the storm clouds began to gather on the horizon, and many other doors were shut in His face. But this one remained open even to the end.

It seems this time Christ came unannounced. Why He did this I do not know. We usually get to know people best when we drop in at a time when we are not expected. Our Lord will do the same when He comes again. He made this very clear when he said, “Watch and pray for you know neither the day nor the hour when the Son of Man cometh.” (Mat 25:13). Even now He comes for one or another very suddenly. In many cases He announces His coming beforehand through some kind of sickness or weakness, but this is not always the case.

When he came unannounced in our story, preparations had to be made for His needs. Martha, who was the heart of the house, had hardly greeted her guests before she excused herself and hurried to the kitchen. Doubtless Mary also helped somewhat. The story reads, “She had a sister called Mary, who also sat at the Lord’s feet, and heard His word.” The word “also” implies that she did not spend the entire time sitting there. She probably helped for a time with the preparations and then came back from the kitchen and left Martha to carry on alone. While she considered the dinner important, she did not think of it as supremely important. So she took a place at the Lord’s feet and listened to Him.

Martha carried on alone, but soon she began to get annoyed when Mary did not return to help. With angry eyes and flushed face she looked from the kitchen door, but Mary did not see her or was so deeply interested in what the Lord said that she just couldn’t leave. In the meantime, a volcano erupted inside Martha. She hurried out of the kitchen and exploded in front of the company. “Lord,” she says, “do you not mind that my sister has left me to do everything by myself. Tell her to get up and help me.” Clearly her patience had run out. She felt as if she had been mistreated and was quite sure the guests would take her side in this dispute. But instead of rebuking Mary, Jesus rebuked her. With great tenderness He said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. One thing is needful, and your sister has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

How could Christ rebuke someone who was so devoted to Him, who was so courageous in the face of the approaching storm that would end His life? How could He raise His finger and say to Martha, “One thing is needful.” Her home was probably the only one still open to Him; everyone else was afraid to welcome Him and be put on a blacklist. Doubtless Martha was a very courageous person; she also had a practical mind knowing that the physical needs of people have to be met. She knew how to prepare a good meal; she probably had the reputation of being the best cook in Bethany. She also was a kind and dedicated Christian. In the Gospel of John we read that Jesus loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. She would have gladly died for Him, and yet He found it necessary to rebuke her. We must find out why. Surely it was not because she was a practical worker, nor because she was lacking in kindness, love, loyalty or dedication. Rather it was because she worried. He says, “You are anxious and worried about many things.”

Jesus was a constant foe of worry. He knew the evil of it and how it spoils life. In the Sermon on the Mount He asked His listeners, “Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?” and went on to say, “Be therefore not anxious for tomorrow. Behold the fowls of the air, or consider the lilies of the field — even King Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of them.” The Lord, and all who share His mind, view worry as a hurtful woe. “In nothing be anxious,” Paul the Apostle told his church.

Why was Martha worried? Had you gone into the kitchen and said, “Steady now, Martha, don’t get upset,” she would have given you a piece of her mind, and explained why she exploded in the sitting room in the front of the Lord and His disciples. She would have given you reasons for her worries.

She worried first of all about the dinner. She was entertaining an honored guest and wanted to do her best; she desired to make His visit as delightful as possible. But how could she do this all alone? Someone had to look after the fire, carry water, watch the cake. She worried because she was afraid the dinner was going to be a flop.

If the dinner worried Martha, her sister Mary worried her even more. She was a loveable sister, but at times she could be very annoying, and this was one of those times. When it counted she could forget everything and be utterly impractical, not realizing that guests have to eat. Martha probably said to herself, “”Does she not know that a dinner doesn’t cook itself?” But her grumbling went for nothing. While one dish seemed to be burning and the other not cooking at all, this dreamy sister of hers went right on listening to the Master as if she did not have a care in the world; as if one had to do nothing to produce a decent meal. By and by Martha got so worried and fretful that she became positively angry. She would have quarreled with Mary, if Mary would have been willing to quarrel back.

And strangest of all, Martha worried about Jesus. How tragic. This could have been one of the best days of her life. She had as her guest the one who, according to her own confession, is the Christ of God, the Resurrection and the Life. But she did not enjoy Him; did not take time to sit at His feet and drink in His wisdom, receive His blessing and guidance. He had not come with empty hands, but she was too fretful and worried to receive the blessing He had for her. This sounds almost unbelievable, and yet it has been repeated many times in our lives. We are worried over things and for this reason unable to receive the Lord’s blessing.

What did worry do for this good woman in our story? It certainly spoiled the day for her, which could have been one of her happiest. After criticizing her sister and reminding the Lord of His duty, she became more miserable than she was before. She had been unkind to those she loved most. With what shame she must have gone about her further preparations for dinner! And then, when it was ready to be served, it was probably the poorest she had ever cooked, and one that would hardly be enjoyed. Fretfulness and worry seldom produce good work. In whatever field you may be active, you will perform better when you have inward peace. I am sure Martha did not enjoy that dinner – which is another proof that worry hurts the one who worries. It is a joy-killer, and if you persist long enough in it, it will lay waste your life.

But the evil of her worry did not stop with her. It not only spoiled her day; it influenced and spoiled the day for others. If worry could be localized and confined to one person things would not be that bad, but it’s contagious and spreads like wild-fire. If you look into a home where one person is afraid at night, pretty soon everyone will have a gun or pistol or knife lying beside his bed. Or if one person is afraid doing a thunderstorm, then very soon everyone will be affected. Those who have to live with a person who constantly worries worry can tell a story.

Mary had to live with Martha. She had listened to the Lord, drinking in the wonderful message, hearing about heaven, the place prepared for God’s children, and learning more about the way which takes us there. How embarrassed she must have been when her sister forgot herself so much that she rebuked not only her, but the guest as well. How grieved she must have been. The worry of Martha had an effect on Mary.

But it also grieved and disappointed Jesus. He had come to this home because the storm clouds of opposition were darkening the sky. The Pharisees and Scribes were looking for an opportunity to arrest Him. This home was like an island in a stormy sea, so He came for a day of rest and quietness. He was sure He would be welcomed, but what happened grieved Him. With our worries we grieve and disappoint our Lord. Don’t believe that God is happy when you worry.

I’m sure most of you are ready to agree, but you’re not ready to give up worrying. “How can I help it in a world like this and times like these?” I hear someone say. “How can I keep from worrying in a situation like mine?”

Let us first understand that the conquest of worry does not depend so much upon our circumstances. There are those who say, “I will quit worrying as soon as my situation improves; as soon as I have paid the last installment on the house or the new car; as soon as I have recovered from my ailment, and as soon as my income has reached a certain amount.” That is what Martha had in mind. As soon as the roast is alright and the cake is perfect and the dinner ready to be served, I am going to stop worrying and be at peace.

Some of you may not have slept well last night, not because the bed was uncomfortable but because you were worried; because life had dealt more harshly with you than others. There are many who are in circumstances far worse than yours, and they are enjoying peace that passes understanding.

Most probably the two sisters in our text were equally devoted to Jesus, but they expressed their devotion in different ways. Martha, who was practical, was eager to prepare Him a good meal; Mary expressed her devotion by sitting at His feet, by sympathy and understanding. This worried and angered Martha, who thought her sister was making no contribution to His welfare, and believed that only her work counted. Out of love for the Lord she prepared this meal, but she became so concerned about the secondary that she forgot the primary. That is a great danger in our hectic day. Whenever secondary things, however important, get into first place in your life and Christ takes a back-seat, the result will be discouraging.

To conquer worry we must put Christ in His rightful place. This is what Mary did and won the victory. She put Christ first. Fellowship with Him was her highest and holiest form of service, and it gave her peace of mind and peace of heart. Peace that passes understanding cannot fit in the heart at the same time with anxiety and worry. The Psalmist said, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” When this is the case, the next sentence follows as surely as night follows day; “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be removed, and the mountains be carried into the sea” (Ps 46:2). Jesus offers his children peace of mind. He says, “My peace I give to you, not as the world giveth. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” In order to conquer worry, we must give Christ first place in life.

Third Sunday in Lent, 1965

Categories: Faith, Opinion


1 reply

  1. Reblogged this on Growing in Faith and commented:
    Very similar to my devotion


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