“But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk 10: 42)
The Gospel of Luke records a brief incident of Jesus’ visit to the family of Lazarus, Martha and Mary (Lk 10: 38-42). These godly siblings from the village of Bethany were dear to Jesus’ heart (Jn 11: 5).
A woman of hospitality, Martha had begun preparing an elaborate meal for her guests. But while she busied herself in the kitchen, her sister Mary did something unusual – she sat at Jesus’ feet: “And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word” (Lk 10: 39).
This was the ancient posture of disciples or learners. They sat at the feet of their teachers – beneath them, in a humble place – with a readiness to believe the words that fell from their teachers’ lips, and a desire to obey them. Like Saul of Tarsus who sat at the feet of Gamaliel, Mary sat as a pupil under her divine Instructor. It reflected her child-like spirit as a learner in the school of Christ. Mary sat, totally absorbed as she listened to the great Teacher.
At first glance, it may appear that Mary was idle and lazy. She had left all the cooking and serving duties to Martha. We are told that in her zeal to cater to her honoured guests, Martha “was cumbered about much serving” (Lk 10: 40a). Resentful that her sister had left her to labour alone, Martha appealed to Christ: “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me” (v 40b). Martha was indirectly accusing Jesus of encouraging Mary to neglect her duties.
Martha had probably expected Christ to chide her sister and send her to help in the kitchen. Instead, the Lord gently rebuked Martha: “Martha, Martha, thou art troubled about many things” (v 41). What was Martha’s fault? Was it her “much serving”? No, it was her being “cumbered about much serving”. She became so concerned about her serving that she forgot the Lord. Note that Christ did not condemn Martha for her hospitality, but for her over-anxiety and misplaced priority. Martha was so busy with her service that she did not have time for the Lord.
Jesus’ defence and commendation of Mary speaks volumes of her whole-hearted devotion to her Saviour: “But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk 10: 42). Mary had gotten her priorities right. While the Lord was with them, she could not let this rare opportunity – to learn deep spiritual truths from Him slip away. Nothing gave her greater pleasure than to be instructed in the things of eternity by her beloved Lord. Perhaps, Mary’s thoughts were: “How can I enjoy the Lord’s presence? What can I learn about Heaven, about things unseen and about the future?” She had many questions and this was the best opportunity to learn from the Master Himself.
Mary’s sitting at Jesus’ feet reflects her heart of love for her Saviour. C H Spurgeon aptly observes: “She would not have been sitting there at ease and happy in mind, if she had not loved Him. There was a charm in the very tone of His words to her. She knew how He had loved her, and, therefore, each syllable was music to her soul. She looked up again and again, I doubt not, into that dear face, and often caught the meaning of the words more readily as she read His countenance, marked His eyes ofttimes suffused with tears, and ever bright with holy sympathy.” Mary’s love for the Lord made her a willing learner. Like Mary, we must be ready learners in the school of Christ.
Unlike Martha who was distracted by the cares of serving, Mary had chosen “that good part” – the nurture of her soul which was eternal, rather than a focus on temporal concerns. The “many things” that vexed Martha were needless while the “one thing” which she had neglected was “needful”.
Brethren, let us be mindful of the “many things” that can ensnare our souls and take away our time from the Lord. We all have our legitimate cares – our work, studies, family and domestic affairs, and leisure pursuits. All these may be proper and lawful but they must take second place to the things of God.
Like Mary, let us choose “that good part” – the “one thing … needful”. Mary’s single-minded devotion to the Lord reminds us of the psalmist’s desire to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of his life, “to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple” (Ps 27: 4).
Let us set the Lord first in our lives and all will be well. May we “seek … first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt 6: 33).