Now as they went on their way, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha received Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to Him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” As He said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But He said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28 (Gospel from the Feast of the Dormition)
In marketing, it is said that people need to hear something seven times before it sticks with them. This is why companies air the same commercials over and over again because it will take people many times of seeing the same thing before the message will be internalized. Perhaps this is why on all the feastday of the Virgin Mary—August 15, September 8 (Nativity of Virgin Mary), November 21 (Entrance into the Temple), and October 28 (Holy Protection of the Virgin Mary)—we hear same Gospel passage, the story of Mary and Martha. It seems that we need to be continually reminded of the one thing that is truly needful—a relationship with Christ.
In this Gospel passage, we meet Mary and Martha, two sisters, who also had a brother named Lazarus, whom Christ would later raise from the dead. They lived in Bethany, which was about two miles from Jerusalem. Because people would journey to Jerusalem for great religious feasts (the temple was there), there would be great migrations of people through the area several times a year. When Jesus would go to Jerusalem, He would often stay in their home. They were His friends. Their home was a place of respite and relaxation for Him.
In this particular passage, we read that on this particular visit, Martha was running around preparing the meal, while Mary was listening to Jesus’ teaching. Martha complained that Mary was not helping her. Jesus said to her “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and trouble about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
Three things come to mind as I read these two verses. The first is that the one needful thing is a relationship with Jesus Christ. What good is all the running around in life if we have no relationship with the Lord? Jesus emphasizes that we shouldn’t be anxious and troubled about our many things, but instead we should prioritize the one needful thing.
Secondly, and almost a natural response to the first point is a quandary—we all have things to do—jobs, families, homes to take care of, meals to cook, etc. We can’t just sit around all day reading the Bible and praying. True enough! There have been many books and articles written about having a Mary heart in a Martha world. It is a fact that our world resembles Martha—there is lots of anxiety, stress and running around. There is no getting around that. But in the midst of all of this, we have to take time to sit with the Lord—in prayer, in Scripture, in quiet reflection. Many of us make no time for this. And many of us are actually uncomfortable with the idea of silence and stillness. Some people don’t know how to relax. Learning to be with the Lord is actually something that takes a long time to learn. Learning how to block off distractions and concerns to spend time with God is a challenge that will take a lifetime to master. However, if the goal of this life is eternal life, an eternal BE-ing in the presence of God without anxiety and worry, then we need to practice this in this life.
Third, the one “needful thing” is the need that is in front of us at this moment. We know that Jesus came to the home of Mary and Martha to relax, they were His friends. Because the story of this visit doesn’t include any miracles, or healing, or specific teaching to the multitudes, we can surmise that Jesus was there just to relax. Imagine this in a modern context. Martha is running around, trying to prepare an elaborate meal, and Jesus says to her, “Hey, just order a pizza. What we eat is not important. I came here for fellowship.” There are many people who get anxious about things that shouldn’t make us anxious. When we have guests to our home, we are so concerned about the appearance of our home and the food we are serving (as if our guests are taking notes and won’t like us if we score too low) that we miss out on the opportunity for fellowship. This is another message that comes to us from this passage.
The needful thing is the thing that is right in front of us—It may be our child who needs a hug, and not a lecture; our spouse who needs an ear and not a suggestion; a friend who needs acceptance and not judgment. It takes patience, wisdom and discernment to know what the needful thing is at times. This is why we go to God in prayer to ask Him for these things. The needful thing in today’s story was not the food but the fellowship that Jesus wanted to enjoy with His friends.
How does this pertain to today’s feast? The Virgin Mary focused on the needful thing her whole life. Her early years were spent being raised in the temple. It was announced to her when she was 14 or 15 that she would bear the Christ. By age 15 or 16 she was a mom. She first raised a son, then supported and encouraged His divine mission. She stood loyally by Him when He was condemned. She watched at the cross as He died. And after the Resurrection, she helped the Apostles establish His Church. Her whole life was about the needful thing—saying YES to the Lord to whatever He is calling us to do. Her life is a sterling example for all of us about maintaining our focus on the needful thing. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work, or enjoy a home or get married or raise a family. Rather we can do all these things under the umbrella of faith in God and service to other people. Indeed it’s possible to have a Mary heart in a Martha world. And lots of times it will take discernment and wisdom, grace that comes from God and that is cultivated through prayer, to know when an elaborate meal is in order, or when to just order out for pizza and focus on fellowship.
At your deathless Dormition, O Theotokos and Mother of Life, clouds caught the Apostles up into the air; and, from being dispersed throughout the world, they were reunited before your immaculate body. And when they had buried you with dignity, they lifted up their voices and sang the words of Gabriel: “Rejoice, O unwedded and virgin Mother who are full of grace; the Lord is with you.” Along with them, entreat your Son and our God, for the salvation of our souls. (Doxastikon of Orthros for the Dormition, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Focus on the needful thing for your life, Christ, and on the needful things of this day, the opportunities that present themselves to you to serve and to help others!