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I am sure all of you have heard the phrase “choosing the lesser of two evils.” It is a term that can be applied to a variety of situations; in my experience, most often to politics.
It simply means that there is a choice that needs to be made and that none of the options are perceived as good ones. So we try to determine the least evil of all the bad choices and pray for the best.
In the account of Mary and Martha from Luke, chapter 10, we have nearly the opposite situation. One could even call it “choosing the greater of two goods” because Mary and Martha have a choice between two good things. Both of these sisters loved Jesus, but they choose a different “good” thing, which caused conflict.
Luke records the situation: “Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” (Luke 10:38-39).
Martha chose the path of serving others. She begins to prepare a meal for at least 15 people, but she finds herself working alone. Mary chose to sit at the feet of Jesus to listen to his teaching, but this “good” thing displeased her sister, Martha. She went up to Jesus and said “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to get up and help me” (Luke 10:40). Martha saw Mary’s choice to sit at the feet of Jesus as a selfish one, and demanded that Jesus order her to help with the preparation.
So, which one of the two sisters chose the greatest good? You probably know the answer that Jesus gives, but imagine that you had never heard the story before. I would guess that most people, even most Christians, would praise the person who was actively serving others over the one who simply sat and listened to Jesus’ teaching. But in the Gospels, Jesus often goes against expectations.
For example, Jesus publicly associates with notorious sinners. He praises a Roman soldier as having greater faith than anyone in Israel. He says “many who are last will be first, and many who are first will be last" (Matthew 19:30). Jesus is about to turn Martha’s expectations upside down.
In the busyness of her service, Martha claims that Jesus does not care for her. Of course, we know that Jesus cared for both Martha and Mary, but in a way that was not expected. Jesus cared for them by teaching them about the kingdom of God, and he would soon be on his way to Jerusalem to die for their sins and the sins of the world.
Jesus says “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:41). Hard work and preparations and service to others are all good, important and even necessary things in this life, but they are not the most important thing. Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the best thing, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42).
Worshipping the Lord Jesus and hearing his word is the most important thing; it is more important, even, than the service and work we do for the church and for others, because we cannot really serve others unless Jesus first serves us in his word. Jesus said that we cannot do truly good works (bear good fruit) unless “his word abides in us…for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:7, 5).
What Martha was doing was not wrong, but it was not the best choice at the time. She was distracted from the best thing, the one thing necessary for her salvation, which was listening to the words of Jesus. The one thing necessary for all of us was that Jesus went to Jerusalem to die for us. His shed blood on the cross has washed away all of our sins and his resurrection from the dead has opened up the door of eternal life to all who put their trust in him. Now was the time to hear the Gospel message.
The times we worship together are the times set aside for the hearing of God’s word; for receiving the eternal blessings he offers us there. So, I encourage you not to be distracted, like Martha was, by many otherwise good things, but instead choose “the one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42a).
Humbly sit at the feet of Jesus and receive the riches and treasures of his word, which he promises “will not be taken from you” (Luke 10:42b).