“One Thing’s Needful”
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this week we certainly have an interesting text to learn from. Many, including myself, have read over this passage from Luke’s Gospel and have been left scratching our heads. I think the teaching to take away from the text is fairly clear, but at the same time it just feels weird. Martha was just asking for some help. Jesus comes to visit their house with His disciples. Like any good host Martha would have offered them a meal which, for 12 people, is not a simple task. There maybe was a bowl for the guests to wash their feet, which would mean dirty water splashed everywhere and someone’s got to clean that up. Why does Martha have to do it all by herself? Mary is just sitting there. Why doesn’t Jesus just ask Mary to pitch in a little bit too? Most of us would just tell Mary to stop being such a Lazy Susan, if for no reason other than to quiet Martha’s whining. It’s a good thing we didn’t write the Bible, because we wouldn’t learn anything from this passage then. Jesus uses the opportunity to teach us today about the one thing that is needful. Though the cares of the world make demands of us on all sides, yet there is only one thing that we really need.
(I. One thing is needful.)
(II. There is nothing that we have to offer.)
(III. One thing is needful and we pray Christ keeps us in it.)
Continuing on from last week’s text where Jesus turned the question of what one must do to inherit eternal life back around on the lawyer, Jesus is going to do it again in Bethany. Martha, expecting that it was totally reasonable to ask Jesus to make Mary help her, is rebuffed by Jesus. He responds to her request, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (vv. 41-42) So there we have it, Jesus tells Martha that amidst all the cares and worries of the world, all the daily tasks that are done or that we have to do, there is one thing that remains needful – the Word of Jesus Christ. There is one hymn that really goes along with this reading. I think it does a very good job of explaining this text; and so, if we could, I would like to invite you to open up hymn 536, “One Thing’s Needful.”
From the first lines of stanzas 1 and 3 we read, “One thing’s needful; Lord, this treasure teach me highly to regard…Wisdom’s highest, noblest treasure, Jesus, is revealed in You.” The hymn at first basically takes its words straight from Jesus’ mouth – that there is one thing that is needful in life, one thing in which the highest, most noble thing is found – Jesus’ Word. Does that mean that food preparation and cleaning that Martha was doing was bad? No. But at that time, when Jesus was in the next room speaking the Word of eternal life to His disciples and Mary, Martha stuck to her own tasks, insisting they were just as important.
In the same way, we often pull a Martha when it comes to hearing God’s Word. Imagine that you’ve just worked your 40+ hours and you are looking for some rest this weekend. Like any adult with a life, you stay up late Friday night, or your kids keep you up – which leads to sleeping in on Saturday. Then on Saturday you have a full day of activity with your family and before you know it, Sunday morning sneaks up. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to not get up? Besides, you’re being a good steward by making sure your body gets enough rest for the coming week, and you’re being a good parent by letting your children sleep. Later, you’ll reward yourself by taking the family out for breakfast. All this during the time when you could’ve been hearing the very Word of eternal life. Or, substitute sports on Sunday morning and see the same result. Abandoning the Word of God for our own pleasures, all of which turn out to be a yoke around our neck, presses us down into the muck of sin and eternal damnation.
Martha must have thought that she was being the good one. Here she was serving Jesus, doing her best, she might add. She welcomed Him into her home, she prepared a meal for Him and continued to serve Him and His disciples. But, it turns out, Mary had chosen the better option. Mary knew, as the hymn states in stanza 4, that “nothing have I, Christ, to offer, You alone, my highest good. Nothing have I, Lord, to proffer but Your crimson colored blood.” Martha sought to offer her best service to Jesus, but Mary knew what the best is that one can offer Him: nothing other than receiving His gifts. We can offer nothing to Jesus, save His own blood and righteousness. This is the true worship of God – to hear His Word and receive all the gifts He has to give.
There is nothing we need except to hear the Word of God. There is nothing that we can offer Him. Our service, our best intentions, our hearts all mean nothing. We have nothing to offer because Jesus’ “death on the cross has death wholly defeated and thereby my righteousness fully completed.” Everything we like to do will eventually turn out to be in vain. There is nothing on earth that lasts, everything will fade away. Every time we try to satisfy ourselves and put something worldly at the center of our lives, it only becomes a millstone around our necks and we plunge ourselves into the sea. If everything we have or loves turns out to be in vain, how much less can we offer it to Jesus? No, there is only one source of righteousness, one source of salvation’s white robes. Jesus Christ is the one who, once for all time, has offered a single sacrifice for sins. And by that single sacrifice of His body on the cross, Jesus “has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified,” as we read in Hebrews. (10:14)
It is only by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that we have life, and that comes through hearing His Word. It is His work that has completed all righteousness. Through the grace of our God and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit words were written down in order that we might hear them, be given the gift of faith, and receive eternal life though Jesus Christ. These are all done for and to us. Like Martha, our natural inclination is to try and do. We look for ways to give to God, whether it is our time, our thoughts or actions. But, there is nothing that we can give that isn’t already His. And so, He invites to sit at His feet and hear His Word of eternal life.
The end of the hymn “One Thing’s Needful” goes like this, “through all my life’s pilgrimage, guard and uphold me, in loving kindness, O Jesus, enfold me. This one thing is needful; all others are vain – I count all but loss that I Christ may obtain.” Like Martha, we often get caught up in life’s details. We get busy doing what we want, and we fail to recognize that there is only one thing that matters: the Word of God. Jesus called Mary to sit at His feet and hear His Word of peace and salvation. We pray today that throughout the pilgrimage of our earthly life Jesus would guide us through this valley of shadows to the green pastures beside His feet.
We pray this, and we know that He who promised is faithful. Amidst all the cares of this world, we have a savior who continually reaches out to us, who comes to us and invites to learn at His feet. Through Baptism we were washed and made clean and placed at the feet of Jesus to listen to Him. He has given us His holy Word, which has been written down for our learning. He comes to us with His forgiveness through the mouth of Pastor. We know that the absolution we receive is from Christ Himself. When the sermon is preached, we do not just hear empty words, but we hear the voice of Jesus through the mouth of His humble servant. Then, in the Holy Supper He feeds us with His own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith.
This has been a tough reading this week. If it were up to any one of us, we would’ve probably made Mary go to the kitchen and help Martha. I’m sure many of you have used that approach with your children. Like Martha, we sometimes get caught up in life too. Even though Martha was doing good things, she put those in place of the only needful thing in life: Jesus’ Word. And so today we pray that, along with Mary and the Disciples, Jesus would keep us at His feet where we hear the Words of eternal life and forgive us when we go our own way.
O Lord, grant us the Spirit to hear Your Word and know the one thing needful that by Your Word and Spirit we may live according to Your will; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.