Every time we read this story, we instinctively think of Martha as being silly or superficial. “Yea Martha, why would you be worried about what to serve your celebrity guest? And why does it bother you that you are slaving away in the kitchen on your own while your sister is chilling with the guest?” If it hasn’t become obvious yet, the irony is, we would have done what Martha did almost hundred percent of the time. Martha is often portrayed in a negative light as someone absorbed in trivial matters while Mary shines as the wise one who made the right choice. But lets be practical here. Mary is not a good team player in this incident and someone has to worry about making dinner. Soon as the hungry stomachs started growling, I am sure they appreciated what Martha was up to that evening in Bethany.
Now that we have validated Martha’s behavior, lets take a step back. There seems to be a certain depth to the story that we haven’t quite captured yet. Martha’s behavior was not bad. It was in fact very good. She stands as an epitome of productivity and hospitality. After all, we very much value those qualities in our society. And we are more than eager to teach them to our kids. Notice, Jesus is neither asking Martha to calm down and take a chill pill nor is he condemning her desire to serve her guests. He is rather questioning her priorities. He is not making a distinction between good and bad behavior but between good and better. In all of Jesus’s teachings, he has never narrowed down any concept to “one thing that is necessary” except in this passage. We better pay careful attention here.
Jesus continues to explain that Mary’s choice to sit at his feet was the “good portion” because that experience and what she gained from it “will not be taken away from her”. In other words, spending time at Jesus’s feet is an investment for eternity. It is that one thing that is necessary in this life. As it follows, it is that one thing that has to be at the top of our priority list. Because everything else in life including our money, health, relationships, social status and life itself will be taken away from us. However, spending time with Jesus is not the easiest thing in the world. The tangible things in life seem more urgent than the intangible. At times, God seems elusive and distant. Prayers seem to dissolve in thin air. Silent meditation is rather unexciting and sometimes reading a four thousand year old manuscript is laborious. We are tempted to point fingers at Mary in envy and say that she had it easy. He was right there. She could see him, hear him, touch him and quite literally sit at his feet and listen to his teachings. Again, Martha in this story gives us no room for excuse. As a matter of fact, Martha was also physically present in that house and still chose the urgencies of the tangible.
The story has no ending in the bible. Luke does not record Martha’s response to Jesus’s words. We don’t know if Martha joined Mary at Jesus’s feet. I hope she did. I hope we do too. Sitting at his feet is a habit to be cultivated. It does get sweeter every time. After all, we will always have the “many things” to be anxious about but only one thing is necessary.