Martha And Mary; Or, The One Thing Needful

Adapted From A Sermon By

George Burder

But the Lord answered her, “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.”
Luke 10:41-42

Our wonderful Savior, whose gracious occupation it was to go about doing good, was pleased, in one of his journeys, to visit at a friend’s house in Bethany, a little village about two miles from Jerusalem. There lived, in one happy house, Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary; all pious persons, and humble disciples of the blessed Jesus.

Martha was probably the housekeeper, for it is said, in verse 38, that she“welcomed him into her house.” He, who was the Maker of all, and the Lord of all, was for our sake so poor, that he did not have a place where to lay lay head, no house of his own; but, here and there, a pious person was found, who thought it the highest honor to entertain him. In a spiritual sense, Jesus still stands at the door of our house, of our hearts, and knocks for admittance. Would that we may all open our hearts, and most happily receive the heavenly guest!

No sooner was he seated, than he began to instruct the family in divine things: and so should we thankfully welcome every good opportunity of talking about subjects which belong to our peace. Let religion have a place in the home, as well as in the church.

When this heavenly Teacher opened his mouth, the whole family was all attention; so much is meant by the expression, Mary “sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching.” An humble heart and an humble posture are well suited to the disciples of Christ, when they hear his word. When Christ began his discourse it may well be that Martha, as well as Mary, was diligently attentive; for, though it is omitted in the ESV, the little word ‘also’ is present in the Greek: it could be translated —“she had a sister, who also sat at his feet.”

But, as some attention from the mistress of the house was required to provide for the many guests, (for there must have been thirteen in number if all the apostles were there,) Martha, who appears to have been of an active disposition, left the room to oversee the business of the kitchen. She denied herself the pleasure of continuing to hear his engaging discourse, for the purpose of making an abundant preparation for our Lord and his friends; a preparation, it should seem, far greater than was necessary.

Finding this care and labor too much for her strength and spirits, she returns to the room to complain of her sister; she came to Jesus, and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

While Martha’s hospitality and generosity are certainly commendable in wishing to entertain her guests in a plentiful manner, one cannot help but noticing something blameworthy in this instance. She had certainly lost her temper, and was improperly angry with her sister. She should have made some allowance for the pious zeal of Mary, who was too deeply engaged in listening to Jesus, to remember the affairs of the house. If her help was necessary, Martha might have made signs for her to come, or whispered the request in her ear. But it was still more blameable to insinuate a degree of reproach on our Lord himself, as if he were to blame for detaining her. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?’ This was very improper and disrespectful. If she thought it wrong that her younger sister should indulge her ease, while she was so hard at work, yet why was the Lord to be reproached, as if he were the cause of it?

But, while we detect this infirmity of Martha, let us correct the same fault in ourselves. We are too apt to lose our composure in a hurry of worldly business; too apt to find fault with our fellow-Christians, when they do not come up to our standard; and, what is much worse, to murmur at difficult providences, and quarrel with heaven itself: For this is sometimes the language of our dissatisfaction—“Lord, do you not care that I am so ill, so perplexed, so persecuted, so deserted, so helpless?” Let us beware of this attitude, and we will be angry with ourselves, rather than with Martha.

As this question was proposed to our Lord himself, he is pleased to answer it. Mary, who was blamed, remains silent: she leaves her defence to a more able advocate. Jesus kindly passes over the reproach which was aimed at himself, but fully vindicates Mary’s conduct; while he tenderly reproves Martha for her extreme anxiety.

Our Lord well knew the state of her mind— she “was distracted with much serving—anxious to make a great entertainment, and to have everything in exact order; she was preoccupied with this; almost distracted with the hurry and bustle it produced in the family. This was no doubt out of respect to her much-esteemed visitor; yet probably there was a little mixture of pride in the business; a wish to set off the whole to the best advantage, as is too common, even with good people, on such occasions, in which the spiritual comfort, both of the hostess and the guests, is often diminished.

Jesus therefore gave her a gentle rebuke. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.” He was no doubt pleased with her good intention to entertain him; but he was not pleased at her making a great feast, as if he took delight in a sumptuous table. He did not covet delicacies; nor is he pleased with the luxury of his professing people; nor with the great expense and great trouble which a splendid entertainment requires. He would have been more satisfied with seeing Martha sitting with Mary to hear his instructions; “he was better pleased to see Mary in the chapel, than Martha in the kitchen.”

What most displeased him was that her attention to many things led her, for the present, to neglect the one thing, that which was the great thing he came to her house for, namely, to teach and instruct the family; and this was “the one thing” to which Mary wisely confined her attention. When, therefore, he blames Martha for paying too much attention to worldly things, he commends Mary for paying attention to that one spiritual thing, the care of her soul, by taking advantage of the present opportunity of enjoying his instruction.

One thing,” said he, “is necessary”—is absolutely necessary, indispensably necessary; and consequently all other things must give place to it. He therefore adds, “Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her;” as if he had said, Your dear sister has such a just and stirring sense of the infinite value of her immortal soul, and so earnest a desire of taking advantage of the present opportunity of becoming wise to salvation, that she has wisely given the preference to my company; and in doing this she has chosen the good portion, and secured a blessing that she will never lose.

And so Martha was reproved, and Mary commended. It must have been a great disappointment to the former; she expected a different kind of answer: but Christ is faithful; and He “disciplines the one he loves.” It was because he loved her, that he rebuked her; and, as she was truly a pious woman, no doubt she profited by the reproof, and loved him for it more than ever.

There is much solid instruction to be derived from this little story. The blameable anxiety of Martha, and the pious devotion of Mary, gave occasion for our Lord’s delivering one of the most weighty sayings that words can possibly express; a saying worthy to be written in letters of gold; a saying worthy to be affixed in every church, in every house, in every heart. May the finger of God inscribe it on our inmost souls!


For our further instruction from this pleasing and most interesting passage, it may be proper to observe the three following truths:

1. The care of the soul is the one thing necessary:

2. The cares of the world greatly hinder this religious care.

3. Truly religious people possess a portion which they will never lose.

1. We should first observe that the care of the soul is the one thing necessary:

it is the religious care of the soul that our Lord here intends, as appears from his opposing Mary’s ease to Martha’s cares: she cared for many things; Mary for one; and she manifested this care by a careful attention to every word that dropped from his lips. But this short sentence contains a great deal of meaning.

The care of the soul implies a appreciation of its infinite value and importance, as immortal. According to our Savior’s words in another place, “what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt 16:26)

The care of the soul includes the diligent use of all those means which God has appointed for its salvation; the first of which is, a due regard to the word of God. And as Mary did, so must we. It is true, we do not have not now the physical presence of this great teacher, yet we have his word; we have that Gospel, which he ordered to be preached to all nations, and which he promised to support with his spiritual presence to the end of the world. This Gospel is able to make us “wise to salvation;” and it is his “power for salvation.” Those, therefore, are most like Mary, who give their most diligent attention to his word both in public and private.

Prayer also is a necessary part of this religious care. That person cannot have much concern for his soul, who neglects this duty: but he who knows and feels that he is a miserable sinner, will most gladly apply to the throne of grace for mercy. This will be the daily business of every one who has a due concern for his soul. “behold, he is praying!” (Acts 9:11)

Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is also the proper effect of this care. Everywhere, the word of God directs the sinner to Jesus, as the only deliverer from the wrath to come; so when the jailer showed a concern for his soul, by crying, “what must I do to be saved?” the apostle immediately replied—“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” This is indeed the one thing necessary. All our religious cares meet in this point; for there is no name under heaven, by which we must be saved, but the precious name of Jesus; the soul, therefore, that is taught of God, rests in nothing short. of this; as it is written, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me;” (John 6:45) and, blessed be his dear name, it is added, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6:37) The person that is duly concerned for his soul wants those blessings, which are only to be found in Jesus; and here they are all ready for him. Jesus is our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, and redemption; everything necessary to make a poor sinner rich, and a miserable sinner happy. And so for that person, Jesus Christ is all, and in all.

The care of the soul will influence the whole conduct of a believer; he cannot live his life as other men do. The fear of the Lord is in his soul. The love of God is poured out in his heart. The commandments of God are written on his mind. Sin therefore becomes his aversion, holiness his delight, religion his element, the people of God his companions, and heaven the prize at which he aims.

Take these thoughts and put them together: you will then surely admit that this religious concern is the one thing necessary. It has to be so, if the soul itself is of any value; if it is immortal; if it must exist for ever, either in bliss or agony. Is there a state of everlasting misery for impenitent sinners? The God of truth declares there is. He who spoke the words of our text to Martha, speaks also of the day of judgment, when he will say to the wicked, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt 25:41) Now, if we believe this, we will run from the wrath to come; it will be the first concern of our souls to avoid eternal torments. What can be so dreadful as hell? What can be more necessary than to escape it?

Is there, on the other hand, a state of complete and everlasting happiness in heaven? Will Christ say to his people, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world?” (Matt 25:34) And is it certain that the true Christian will enjoy the presence and glory of the Redeemer to all eternity? Surely, then, that religious care which he has made necessary to obtain this happiness, must be the one thing necessary. What if Martha’s cares would procure mines of silver, crowns of gold, sceptres, jewels, and kingdoms, in all their rich abundance; what are these compared to the glorious blessedness of saved sinners, connected with Mary’s eagerness for the one thing necessary!

But, besides these important concerns of the future, religion is the one thing necessary even now. Godliness has the promise of the present life, as well as of that to come. How many snares are avoided! how much harm is prevented! how much solid peace of mind obtained, by the truly religious person! What happy individuals, what happy families, happy towns, and happy kingdoms, would there be, if the blessed religion of the Gospel prevailed in all its beauty and power!

This then is the great concern, this the first business, the chief end of man. Compared with this, the most important affairs of the greatest empires are trifles light as air. “Vanity of vanities, says the (royal) Preacher, all is vanity and a striving after wind;” but he adds, as the conclusion of all his pursuits and discoveries—“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man”; (Ecc 1:2, 14, 12:13) or, as it is expressed in a similar passage, and with the like solemnity “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.” (Job 28:28)

If then we give credit to the testimony of wise and good men, to the testimony of God throughout the Scriptures, or to the testimony of our divine Savior in the text, we are forced to agree with the important maxim—The care of the soul is the one thing needful. And if it is so, we have to stop and ask ourselves, how does it comes to pass, that so few persons make it any part of their care, very few indeed their first and principal care? How can we account for this?

Probably it is not because they are not convinced of the truth, for there are serious moments in which the most careless sinners admit it; but it is to be accounted for in the prevalence of worldly cares, which, for a lack of faith in the reality of eternal things, occupy them so completely, that, like Martha, they are preoccupied, and worried, and troubled, to the great neglect of the most important concern. And this leads us, in the second place, to observe, that,

2. The cares of the world greatly hinder this religious care.

The case of Martha is a proof of this. She was blameworthy; yet not half so blameworthy as many are; for her cares were all directed to the accommodation of the Lord Jesus and his friends; but our cares commonly have only our own interest and comfort in view.

But someone may object, Are worldly cares not necessary? Do we have to shut ourselves up in a cell, and do nothing but say our prayers? The answer is that worldly cares, in their proper place and proportion, are unavoidable, and are absolutely necessary. We have bodies as well as souls: these must be provided for; and, to make this provision, care and effort are necessary.

Religion was never designed to make us lazy—and the apostle Paul directs, that if any man will not work, he should not eat. Every person, therefore, in his own situation in life, has his own proper care; the employee; the employer; the tradesman; the housekeeper; the magistrate. And the same apostle says—“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim. 5. 8.) It is not therefore against the necessary cares attached to our several roles in life that we speak, but against the excessive degree of them, against that degree of them, which hinders and obstructs the much more important care of the soul.

And here lies the danger of the more moral and virtuous part of mankind; for we do not now speak of persons who live in known and wilful sins, such as drunkenness, theft, profaneness, or any other gross vice; these abominations most evidently war against the soul, and must end in its everlasting ruin. Our business now is with the sober and decent members of society, who may be just, and honest, and useful in their places; and whose diligence and hard work make them stand out among others.

Such characters are indeed deserving of due honor; but at the same time, it must be urged upon them, in the most serious and solemn manner, the great danger of everlasting ruin and perdition by the love of the world;— a thing not less ruinous and destructive to the souls of men, than the most flagrant and disgraceful vices.

For this alarming assertion we have no less authority than that of the apostle John — “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” 1 John 2. 15. Let it also be remembered, what it was that excluded the numerous persons invited to the Gospel feast, Luke 14. 16; it was the love of the world; it was the undue love of lawful things—“they all alike began to make excuses,” and all their excuses were their care and trouble about many things, to the neglect of the one thing necessary. But the master of the feast protested—“none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.” In a similar way, a very promising young gentleman, who addressed our Lord with great respect, and proposed to become one of his disciples, may be forever separated from him by the love of the world; he left him very sorrowful, for he was very rich. But we must go on in the last place, to show, that,

3. Truly religious persons possess a portion which they will never lose.

Mary,” said our Lord, “has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” The portion which she chose was to sit at the feet of Jesus, and receive in faith his divine instructions. This was a good portion, the advantage of which she never lost. The reputation which Martha acquired as a generous hostess was soon gone; but Mary’s honor continues to this moment.

In the same way a truly religious person, one who is renewed by the Spirit of God, is an humble learner at the feet of Christ, who still teaches his church by his word and Spirit; one who accepts the Lord’s gracious invitation “Learn of me”—be my scholar, be my disciple; become wise to salvation by my sacred Gospel, for “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

The Gospel presents to the enlightened mind a part, or portion, which the soul deliberately chooses in preference to the whole world. An interest in Christ and union to him enriches the soul with all the infinite blessings of grace and glory. The complete pardon of sin—the perfect justification and acceptance of his person—the unspeakable felicity of peace with God —the warmest reception into his dear family—the most friendly correspondence and communion with him—the consolations of his Holy Spirit—and certain protection from final apostasy—are among the invaluable privileges of a believer in the present world, and surely they deserve the title of the good portion; but: even these, good and great as they are, are comparatively small, when we take a glance by faith into the unseen and eternal world.

Who can tell what is reserved in heaven, as yet unrevealed, for the heirs of glory? “What we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2) Those who have now a part with Christ in his grace, will have a part with Christ in his glory; those who are partakers with Christ in his sufferings, will be partakers with him in his joys and honors to all eternity.

This then is the good portion, intrinsically good, eminently good; and what makes it incomparably good is, its duration; it will not be taken away. This is more than we can say of any earthly possession. Whatever good it may be, it shares in that vanity and uncertainty which is inseparable from the present state of things.

Pleasures perish in the using. Honor is momentary bubble. Riches make themselves wings and fly away. Life itself is a transient vapor. What then is durable? Nothing, nothing but this good portion. This will remain, when the earth itself is dissolved, and the elements melt with fervent heat. It will not be taken away. God, who bestowed it, will not take it away, for “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable:” (Romans 11:29)

Wicked men, though they should be permitted to persecute, cannot take it away. Satan, with all his ploys and devices, will not take it away. No; we are persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor devils, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In this narrative, religion is brought into focus. Here is nothing to distract your attention. Here is a weighty sentence, uttered by the lips of eternal wisdom—One thing is necessaryone thing, notice; and that one thing is religion, or the care of the soul.

This is what Jesus Christ says. What do you say? Are you of his mind? do you agree with him, or totally disagree?

Ask yourself now, honestly,—Is religion the one thing necessary with you? Is it so in your settled judgment? Is it so in your daily practice? Or is it quite the opposite? Not the one thing. Not any thing. Not at all the object of serious attention, of desire, of delight.

How many things engage your thoughts, and divide your affections? But you cannot say they will not be taken away from you. Even now, they cannot satisfy you. What will they do for you in the hour of death? You know they must fail you then, if not before. Be wise! Be wise now. Do not defer a concern so great, so vast, so important.

Your eternal happiness perhaps depends on the decision which your mind will form this very moment.

God help you to choose aright! You may never have a clearer or stronger conviction than you have at this moment, that religion is the all-important concern. May divine grace enable you to say—By the help of God, this is the good portion which I solemnly choose. Too long have l basely neglected it, but from now on it will be my business, my delight, my portion.

Who can look around at the vain and wicked world without an aching heart? How few are there who account religion the one thing necessary! How many are there with whom it is the one thing needless; the only thing neglected and despised! But let us try to awaken the attention of thoughtless mortals to this great concern. They must pay attention to it, or perish.

Do we have we a relation or a friend living without God in the world? Let us tell him, by some means or other, that one thing is necessary; that Jesus Christ says so; that all good men say so; that even bad men, when they come to die, say so too. Would that we might be the happy instruments of turning him to righteousness!

What a shield does this text provide us with, against all the arrows of censure and ridicule that a vain and thoughtless world may hurl against us! Let them call our serious attention to religion fanaticism; let them treat us as enthusiasts or madmen. It is of no consequence at all. We know that we are right, and they are wrong. We will never blush at the charge of being religious, while the glorious Teacher and Judge of the world is on our side, and says —One thing is necessary.

Have we chosen the good portion? Who has made us to differ from those who reject it? This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes. To sovereign, distinguishing, almighty grace, be all the glory and all the praise! We give him the glory; he permits us to take the joy.

And have I indeed chosen the good portion? and shall it never be taken away? Is all safe for eternity? Is Jesus mine, and Heaven mine? Christian, how happy you are. Never envy the happiest and the richest of the world; be content with your better portion;

rejoice; be thankful and live to God.