Only One Thing Necessary
Tonight I would like to puzzle out loud over a passage that perplexes and disturbs me more, perhaps, than any other passage in the Bible. Let me read from the gospel of Luke (10:38-42):
Now as they were traveling along, He [Jesus] entered a certain village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. And she had a sister called Mary, who moreover was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him, and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
This interaction puzzles me. Deeply ingrained is the notion that what matters is what we DO, not what we know, understand, and believe. Granted, there is a time to think, to learn, and to come to understand; but if learning does not result in transformed behavior and godly action, then it is futile and worthless. The whole point of the Christian life is to DO, not to know; it is to behave in certain ways and to engage in particular sorts of actions. Knowledge, understanding, and learning are only valuable to the extent that they are effective means to godly DOing; otherwise, they are worthless. To make understanding an end in itself would be a distortion, a false and invalid approach to God.
In Luke 10, however, Jesus seems to have it backwards. Mary is just sitting and learning. Martha is doing. While Mary is merely listening to Jesus explain the faith, Martha is actually living it out. While Mary discusses ultimate issues, her talk does not translate into obedient service; she just continues discussing. Martha, on the other hand, has put her faith into practice.
It seems so clearly Christian to me that Martha has chosen the better and essential part. Mary has merely chosen a means to the end that Martha has already reached. In fact, Mary appears to have made those means an end in themselves. While Martha has focused on what should be the end of all learningobedient service, Mary has focused on the learning itself. Note what Jesus Himself taught His disciples (Matthew 20: 25-28):
You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
Isn’t this exactly what Martha is doing? Isn’t she taking what Jesus teaches to heart and putting it into practice? So which is better: to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his exhortations to service, or to go out actively and serve? One would think the latter. Is Jesus telling Martha that the former is better? Is Jesus saying that it is better for Mary to hear him expound his theory of servanthood than for Martha to actually serve?
Some teachers seek to avoid this startling conclusion, arguing that Martha is not engaged in true servanthood. She has ulterior motives. She busies herself with self-centered efforts to gain glory through hospitality. She is doing a “Martha Stewart,” not imitating Jesus. Her interest is in showing off her prowess as a hostess, not in actually ministering to the needs of her guests.
Although this may be a possibility, we do not escape the problem that this interaction creates for us. Jesus does not respond by rebuking Martha for her lack of authentic servanthood. Rather, he commends her sister Mary for making the better choice. If Jesus wanted Martha to be more of a real servant, what a strange way for Him to instruct her. Rather than expose her for not having a genuine servant’s heart, he suggests that her sisterwho is making no attempt to serve at allhas made the better choice. Again we face that perplexing inversion. Isn’t it better to attempt to serve and have our efforts tainted by self-glorifying motives than not to attempt to serve at all? Not according to Jesus! What are we to make of this?
Two insights into Jesus’ underlying worldview shed light on what He is saying in this encounter with Martha. The first insight is this: the service I offer to others in this present material existence is simply not of lasting and eternal importance, because everything in this existence is ultimately passing away. The good and helpful things I do for other people will all be undone one day when everything is incinerated in the final flames. Jesus did not teach His disciples the value of service to one another because their service would have permanent value or the good they could do would last; rather, He taught them to be servants because there is lasting significance in a heart that is willing to serve. Willingness to engage in authentic servanthood reflects the sort of person I amnamely, a genuine child of God. That has lasting importance. Nothing I possess and nothing I do will escape the final destruction; but I will. I will take “me” with me. The question is, what sort of “me” am I? Am I a “me” that will inherit eternal life or a “me” that will face eternal destruction? Jesus never meant to suggest that the effects of my service are important; but what my servanthood means about me is very important. Iffor various reasonsI do not actually serve, this is relatively insignificant; for all that my serving would accomplish will eventually pass away anyway. The important thing is that I have a heart ready and willing to serve; for such people are true disciples, destined for eternal reward.
This is an important element for understanding Luke 10; for it clearly implies that some things are more important than service to others. Consistent with this, throughout the course of His ministry, Jesus walked away from people in need. He did not try to maximize the good He did by frantically attempting to heal every person He possibly could. Better than anyone who has ever lived, Jesus knew that all His healing would one day be undone by the death to which we are all subject. Jesus’ legacy is not health to the world; physical healing is relatively unimportant and most certainly not lasting. Jesus’ legacy is the lasting, permanent reward of eternal life to all who have ears to hear.
The second insight that sheds light on Luke 10 is this: if I have no curiosity about what Jesus has to teach me, then all the authentic servanthood in the world has no value toward my eternal well-being. Jesus is the True Light that God sent into the world to illuminate its dark ignorance. Being curious about the ultimate truth that this Light has come to reveal is an essential attribute of a child of God. If I am not curious, I am not a child of God. To be bored and uninterested with what Jesus, the True Light, has to say is a fatal spiritual condition. Only people destined for eternal destruction can remain uninterested in the truth revealed by God.
This perspective must inform our understanding of Luke 10. Jesus is not necessarily suggesting anything is wrong with the love that motivates Martha’s service. Her service is a good thing. Indeed, from the rest of Jesus’ teaching, we would conclude that a willingness to serve is one aspect of what is essential. But serving is not the MOST NECESSARY thing. Mary has chosen the only truly essential thing; for the only essential thing in the whole of human existence is that we manifest an intellectual curiosity that drives us to understand God and His ultimate purposes. If we lack such curiosity, we are children of the devil, cluelessly destined for destruction. Only those who hunger and thirst to know the mind and purposes of God will inherit the promised eternal Life. Mary was just such a child of God. She sat at the feet of Jesus, oblivious to the details of hospitality, because she craved to know what the Light had come to reveal.
Modern Bible-believing culture is stubbornly anti-intellectual. The words Jesus spoke to Martha disturb us deeply. “Isn’t Jesus placing too much emphasis on the mind and understanding here?” we worry. “Isn’t loving and adoring Jesus the most necessary thing? Doesn’t the truly irreplaceable ingredient in making someone a child of God lie in how we feel about Jesus?” We moderns are convinced that the spiritual status of an authentic believer is a sensual experience, not an intellectual one: “understanding” is, at best, of secondary importance and is probably irrelevant; at worst, understanding and knowledge are evil substitutes for “true spirituality,” which rests in feelings of love and adoration for Jesus, in feelings of intimacy with and connection to God.
But here is Mary, thirstily lapping up knowledgerefreshing her head, not her heartand Jesus tells us she is doing the only ultimately necessary thing. How terribly confusing of Him! Doesn’t Jesus know that we cannot love God only with our mind; we must love and serve Him with our heart, with our sentiments and feelings? Doesn’t Jesus know how spiritually stultifying it is to occupy oneself with study and intellectual pursuit? Doesn’t He know that nothing is more antithetical to true spirituality than academics?
No, apparently not. Mary has come to Jesus seeking that intellectual satisfaction that comes from knowing, and Jesus tells us that Mary has chosen the single necessary thing. If you are like me, Jesus’ affirmation of Mary rocks you to the core. If Jesus is serious, He has such a radically different understanding of what my discipleship to Him is all about. From my perspective, I disciple myself to Jesus in order to love Him, to adore Him, to worship Him, to feel euphoric at the thought of Him, and further, to serve and obey Him. From Jesus’ perspective, I disciple myself to Him for fundamentally one purposeto be taught and to understand in order that I might know what existence is all about.
Were Jesus to visit the modern world, I am afraid that contemporary Christians would reject His claims to Messiahship. What is the primary fault we would find in Jesus? He is way too academic! He must not truly love God. How could He? His approach to God is to try to understand Him, not to worship Him. The Bible is His God, His idol. He is so invested in understanding the Scriptures that He must lack the deep and rich relationship with God that should rightly be His focus.
Accordingly, Jesus would bore us. He is not interested in what interests us. His grand sweeping philosophy of life is completely impractical. He says nothing about the “how-to’s” of our lives. To our great disappointment, He doesn’t teach us how to live, how to make a good marriage, how to raise good children, how to prosper in business, not even how to deepen our love for God. What He does teach is overly grand, overly general, overly vague, impractical, and irrelevant by comparison to these vital issues. What good is a philosophy of life that doesn’t deal with the practical stuff, where the rubber meets the road? Jesus would not hold our interest. Many modern evangelical teachers are more down-to-earth and have more to offer than Jesus would.
It would have been very instructive to observe the teaching of Jesus to which Mary was listening. What did He talk about? Was He teaching the principles for finding a godly husband? The principles of righteous hospitality? God’s principles for how to prosper materially? Or how to sustain one’s health? Anyone familiar with the Gospels knows how unlikely this is. Far more likely, Jesus was explaining all the ways in which the history of the Jews and the prophetic predictions contained in the Scriptures pointed to Him as the promised Messiah of Israel. As He did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus probably tried “to explain the Scriptures.” He was engaged in hard-core exegesisincluding the examination of history, genealogy, theology, and all sorts of potentially dry academic stuff. And Jesus tells us, “Mary has chosen the one thing that is truly necessary.”
Mary was not an intellectual. She was not among the educated elite of her society. She was a simple, ordinary Jewish woman of the day. Intelligent? Likely. Intellectually sophisticated? Not likely at all. But if not from education, from where did Mary’s curiosity come? It came from the work of the Spirit of God, I submit. One does not have to be a trained academic to be a true intellectual. Every human being who wants to be authentically human must ultimately be an intellectual in the same sense that Mary was one. Is this not what Luke 10 explicitly teaches us? Curiosity with respect to the ultimate truth about God and reality is the single essential thing. An authentic child of God will have an insatiable curiosity to know and understand his creator. And, in part, that means an insatiable curiosity to know all that can be known about what God is doing in this world. That is a true and righteous intellectuallike Mary. And, surprisingly, that is what Jesus tells us is the only necessary thing. In the final analysis, the few essential things ultimately boil down to just onethat I develop a craving to know God by knowing what He is up to in His creation.
One of the greatest enemies of authentic discipleship today is our deep-seated bias against intellectual pursuit. Even when we value teaching, we often value it for the wrong reasons. We don’t value it because it contains wisdom which satisfies my longing to understand; we value it to the extent that it delights me, entertains me, pleases me, moves me, or otherwise brings some aesthetic delight. Apollos was a better teacher than Paul, according to the Corinthians, because he was an engaging and moving speaker. Paul, by comparison, was a weak and ineffective speaker. “But why should that be relevant?” Paul asks in his letter to the Corinthians. Only one who is worldly and unenlightened could value sensual, aesthetic delight over the profound intellectual satisfaction that comes from accurately grasping the Truth. Paul, the weak and ineffective speaker, offered the wisdom of God no less (and perhaps more) than Apollos did. The enlightened, spiritual, authentic child of God would crave what Paul had to offer. It is a mark of worldliness and foolishness that a person could prefer the engaging and entertaining rhetoric of Apollos to the authentic wisdom of the appointed apostle of Jesus.
Who are we who constitute the community of McKenzie Study Center and Gutenberg College? By God’s mercy, I hope we are authentic intellectuals in the tradition of Mary, the sister of Martha. I pray we will recognize and honor the one thing Jesus says is essential. I pray we will never get bored with seeking to understand God and all He has done and all He purposes to do in the course of cosmic history. We invite you to join us in this pursuit. But whether you join us or not, I pray that God may protect you from that boredom and lack of intellectual curiosity that reveals, more than anything else can, that you are a bastard child, destined for destruction, and not a true child of God.
Copyright November 1999 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.