Sep 22, 2015

The One Thing Needful in An Age of Distractions

By Rebekah Thielen

“If we could realize that the work is to keep doing the work, we would be much more fierce and much more peaceful.” Clarissa Pinkola Estes

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village.” So begins the story of Mary and Martha and the one thing needful. Surely you’ve heard it. Martha welcomes the Lord into her home. Jesus is teaching. People are everywhere. Eventually, God and His travel-weary friends are going to need food, drink, and yes, maybe even a smile or two. We’re talking one paragraph in the entire Bible and it already sounds like the kind of story with enough potential to color the pages of Sunday School history. There’s only one problem--Martha’s doing all the work and Mary’s just sitting there.

I’m not here to chastise Mary or Martha. I’m a hopeful believer in women doing less chastising and more growing up into Christ our Head, and as we do, learning to see and speak the good we see in one another. I love that Mary is so enthralled with the Lord, so taken with His presence, she abandons all things sensible for the one thing needful. And as for dear Martha, even though Jesus corrects her, I admire the way she took her hostess role seriously--thinking ahead and thinking of others.

But Jesus has a point to make, and we’d be wise to listen, lest we miss it. As noble an undertaking as feeding the hungry is, we are given an important insight on Martha’s service—it has made her distracted. As a result, and as is common among those who try to love distractedly, she finally can’t take it anymore. All the serving leaves her spent. Martha has a moment of what we might describe as “losing it.” She interrupts the class— I doubt she even bothers to raise her hand—and demands that Jesus, “Tell my sister to help me.” In the end, all her striving leads to is the disrespect of the Man she seeks to serve.  

Thankfully Jesus can take it. He has come, after all, not to be served, but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many. To her credit, Martha has come to the right place, to the right Person. Jesus, being the Son of Man that He is, does not react. Instead He responds. He sees inside her heart and finds her to be “anxious and troubled about many things”.  Martha perceives her biggest problem as a lack of practical help in a time of great need. But Martha is mistaken. The Teacher continues His lesson, pointing out that Mary has chosen the better portion and it shall not be taken from her. Jesus sees something different. Martha doesn’t have an idle sister. What Martha has is idle faith.  

Of course, the work of loving our neighbors is a tremendous responsibility. Martha was neither the first nor the last woman to find herself overwhelmed by it. Surely Jesus understands this. I have to believe, that if Martha’s number one need in that moment was help in the kitchen, Jesus would have gladly called a ten minute intermission, turned some water into wine, and gotten up to help with the bread kneading. Our precious Lord is not in the business of withholding, but of giving. What Mary desired, and what Jesus desires for Martha, is the gift of Himself, His beautiful Word, His body and blood, broken and shed for the forgiveness of her sins.

That is why the wise woman builds her house, not in the ways that the current age offers of staying busy and getting things done, but firmly upon the Rock. Pinterest offers us ideas, but it can’t stabilize our priorities. Routines can ease the chaos, but they can’t take away sin in the world or the inevitable hardship that comes along with it. We can make our lists of what needs to get done, but in the end, worry doesn’t work because worry doesn’t work.

Instead, let us sit for a moment. Put away all idleness, foolishness, pride, and iPhones. Let us take the lesson learned in Bethany and come with the courage and humility to the feet of our Creator. Jesus bids us come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain wisdom, knowledge, mercy, and peace of heart.

If it is help a woman needs, then it is help she has. For her help comes from the Lord, the maker of home, and of heaven, and earth.

“This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” John 6:29


Rebekah is the wife of Joshua, her husband of eleven years. With the help of the Lord they have brought forth six children. Five grow and play and learn here on this earth while one (lost due to miscarriage) lives and sings in the glory of heaven. They reside in southern Illinois where Joshua serves as pastor to the Lord's flock. Each day ushers and compels them deeper and deeper into the promise of new mercies, the hope of the resurrection, the coming King of Kings, and the blessed life of the world to come. 

"Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" by Vincenzo Campi, Second Half of the Sixteenth Century


  1. Well, looking at the picture we can see why Martha might feel overwhelmed ; )

  2. I attended Bethany Lutheran College, where I heard this text many times. "One Thing Needful" is the college motto. But you have managed to make the story fresh again for me -- thank you. It's such an important reminder that whenever I'm getting overwhelmed with my duties and fed up with life, that's precisely when I need to stop, get in the Word, and remember what's actually important.


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