The One Thing
Updated: Jun 27
The story of Jesus' visit to Bethany is a familiar one. This passage tells of a significant God encounter, one filled with desire for Jesus, hospitality, judgment, conflict, and Jesus’ exhortation to the good. In this passage, Jesus visits Bethany and engages with his friends. It is a unique and compelling invitation to prayer and intimacy with Jesus in a time when chaos and conflict was increasing.
We know that prayer is critical to our lives with God because it incorporates all the different ways that we listen to, engage with, and respond to God.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Let’s take note of a few things:
This story takes place in the final year of Jesus ministry—the year of opposition. Jesus' popularity is decreasing, the religious leaders are becoming more threatened by his ministry, and those who are his friends are being noticed. This will increase. The cross is approaching... the fulfillment of Jesus’ ministry when he offers his life on our behalf.
This passage highlights Martha and Mary. This encounter would have been striking as it occurred for many reasons, not the least being that the main characters are women. Although the women take centerstage, this is not primarily a story about women.
Also, this story is often used to identify what is wrong with Martha… but that is not the focus of the story. There is beauty and goodness in Martha here too. But even more so this is a story about attention, emotions, relationship, and ultimately... prayer. It is about keeping that which is essential as our primary focus… keeping Jesus first.
This passage begins with a welcome. “But when Jesus enters Bethany, a woman named Martha welcomes him into her home.”
It would have been unusual for a woman to be named as the homeowner and host of Jesus and his followers. But notice Martha’s welcome of Jesus.
When I think of hospitality, I think of my friend, Judy. When I was a young adult, I worked at a Christian summer camp in the Poconos. I worked with Judy for years; she had a heart of hospitality. She was genuinely interested in people and sought to care for those around her. When she saw you, delight would light up her face and you would be enveloped in a big hug. My friend saw people and expressed affection and warmth.
PAUSE: Consider your own life: who have you felt the most welcomed by and who have you welcomed.
I suspect that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus had heard Jesus’ teaching and interacted with him before, but we are not told specifically. In this story and two more in the gospels Martha and her sister, Mary, and her brother, Lazarus, are named as friends of Jesus, those Jesus loved. I am very drawn to Jesus’ encounters with those in his inner circle – perhaps you are too.
Let’s start with Martha’s welcome. Jesus engaged with and pursued many with kindness and integrity, including those who opposed him, but he was particularly intentional with those who wanted to draw near. We see that truth throughout the Biblical story… God pursues, initiates, and desires relationship with his created ones. Martha is interested in this rogue preacher who is stirring opposition. So, despite the risk she welcomes him.
Jesus reminds us in Revelation (3:20), the final book of the Scriptures, in his letter to Laodicea, “Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him, and will dine with him, and he with me.”
Jesus is consistently responsive to those who open the door when he knocks. And he does approach and knock on the door to our lives. When Jesus knocks at the door in Bethany, Martha welcomes him into her home.
Martha’s welcome would have been no small feat with the many who followed him. Perhaps this included the twelve disciples and some of the other followers—we do not know how many came. Martha seems confident and bold… interested in Jesus’ presence in her home. Her welcome also provides the opportunity for Mary and Lazarus to engage more personally with Jesus.
PAUSE: I invite you to close your eyes and imagine yourself in this story. Jesus has entered your town. There is a growing resistance to Jesus among your people—to his teaching and to his ways. But you have sensed something different in him: a strength and gentleness, authority and compassion. You want to draw closer to this teacher, this prophet… this man of God. You want to hear more, to understand who he is, what he is about, and why he attracts you.
Imagine hearing that knock at your door… someone desires access to your life. When you open the door look into the eyes of the One who wants to be with you.
Two Postures of Attention and Receptivity
There are two postures of receptivity and attention here. Martha is receptive to Jesus. She welcomes him: preparing, working, hosting, and serving. Her posture is active and external. Mary is also receptive to Jesus. But her posture is different. She sits at Jesus’ feet—listening. Mary is in the position of a disciple, one who is teachable (unusual for a woman in those days). But she is still, rather than physically active.
Both Martha and Mary are receptive to Jesus. A. W. Tozer states in The Pursuit of God, “God waits to be wanted.” Jesus is consistently responsive to those who welcome him into their space, their lives, their hearts, and minds… to those who open the door.
Welcome and receptivity lead to relationship. Life transformation takes place in the intimate encounters with God, with Jesus (Consider Abraham, Hagar, Moses, David, Mary, Peter, the bleeding woman…)
So what hinders our welcome of Jesus into our inner spaces and relationships? As flawed humanity in a broken world… we will collide with obstacles even when we begin with receptivity to God. Trials, challenges, and temptations, large and small, are inevitable... and they often reveal the state of our heart. Often it is the smallest obstacles that enable us to see our hearts struggle the most clearly, perhaps our self-deception is not be as strong here. When we encounter the obstacles, we may find Jesus inviting us to a deeper love and trust.
We have seen Martha’s beauty and generosity, so don’t lose sight of that as we move deeper into this brief story. Martha begins with desire for Jesus and collides with an obstacle that reveals her need. In a fallen world we encounter offenses, hurts, overloads, temptations, and griefs… almost daily. Some small obstacles feel inconsequential, perhaps we can manage the hardship and the disruptive emotions that stir with restraint or even grace. Or perhaps on a bad day, we react in anger, frustration, judgment, unkindness, or meanness.
In her effort to serve, Martha has expectations, realized or not, for how hosting Jesus will unfold. The tasks of hospitality have become the priority... rather than the relationships. She is stirred up, provoked, offended, hurt… and she reacts. She is so very human.
So, what happened? In the middle of her hospitality, emotions begin to stir. When is that first moment we become aware of a niggling feeling? A sense of overwhelm, anxiety stirring, or a rush of anger. Unrealized expectations (reasonable or not) stir up emotions. Left to do the work by herself, Martha feels alone, uncared for, and unloved. To discharge the pain, she looks for someone to blame…. that someone becomes the enemy. And then she demands relief.
Jesus and Mary are easy targets for Martha’s frustration and anger. Luke tells us that Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. How did her attention turn from welcoming Jesus to blaming Jesus? Did Martha even know that she lost sight of her primary focus and her heart’s desire?
Martha’s discomfort was not wrong. But in response she analyzed the situation, assigned blame, and aimed accusations. She accused Jesus of not caring and told Jesus how to fix it. She accused Mary of not helping her, in essence behaving in an unloving manner.
What do I do with the discomfort of disruptive emotions? A couple years ago I came across a fiction novel series written by Sharon Garlough Brown titled Sensible Shoes. It is the story of four women who navigate a significant season of spiritual growth and transformation together. One of the characters in the story, Charissa is an exceptional student in a doctoral program. She tends to be perfectionistic and performance oriented. She also struggles with being judgmental and critical. When she meets with her professor for support, he gives her this advice, “Linger with what provokes you.” This exhortation has come back to me, time and again. It is worth the price of the books.
Curt Thompson psychiatrist, author and speaker, states in Anatomy of the Soul, “Remember that emotion is not a debatable phenomenon. It is an authentic reflection of our subjective experience, one that is best served by attending to it.” Our emotions are filled with energy and will give us insight into the needs of our hearts: our wounds, our hopes, our insecurities and fears, our desires. But they are not intended to drive or control our thinking or behavior.
No one knows us better than the Triune God: our Creator, Savior, and Redeemer. It is critical to attend to our emotions with God and let him interpret our hearts to us (and often a spiritual friend is valuable too.)
So back to Martha. Martha’s exclamation is filled with real need and desire… whether she is aware of it or not. “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Martha vents her emotions and her understanding of the obstacle. It is messy, and it is filled with the brokenness of her heart. In Luke 6:45 Jesus reminds us that the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. But she has turned toward Jesus. There is no one better to lead her toward goodness, a true perspective, and transformation.
Martha turns to Jesus—Yes, this is Prayer
Martha turns to Jesus: with her blame, her demand, and her unnamed shame. When we pray our angst, we open the door to navigating the hard things of life, large and small, with God. This is what we are created for—dependence on God and partnership with God.
God provides a gift for us in this story, not unlike some of the other poignant and emotional stories in Scripture: Gideon grappled with insecurity, Moses’ felt inadequate, Naomi struggled with grief and despair, Job was overwhelmed by grief and self-righteousness, Elijah was immobilized by depression and PTSD, Peter was afraid in the storm when he took his eyes off Jesus as he walked on water, the bleeding woman struggled with shame, Thomas was caught in doubt…and Martha was frustrated. Martha brought all her angst to Jesus. She may not have known this yet, but this was prayer.
God created us in His image, men and women created with the capacity to feel. It is easy to believe that emotions are weakness, but our capacity to feel tells us something about our hearts. Our angst and discomfort can lead us to engaging with God… to PRAYER. Ultimately it can lead us to surrender to God Himself.
Peter walked on water with Jesus, but when he took his eyes off Jesus and turned his attention to the waves, he began to sink. He cried out to Jesus… praying his fear… and Jesus reached for him…lifting him up.
Not every Obstacle and Reaction is External
Martha’s obstacle and reaction were very external. That is not always our experience.
My triggers are not typically like Martha, because my personality and my strengths are not really like Martha. But I can absolutely get caught in disruptive emotions.
Years ago, I was a young mom about to take over the MOPS leadership role at our church. It was Christmas time, and I was 7 months pregnant with my second child. My first daughter was two, and she was a busy, high-energy toddler. My husband worked long hours as an attorney, and as a more creative, contemplative sort of individual I struggled with the tasks of mothering young ones. This was one of the reasons I was passionate about tending the needs of MOPS moms. Mothering little ones is significant and influential. But this night I got tumbled by my own brokenness and desire for significance.
Our current coordinator generously hosted a Christmas gathering for the leadership team (she was also pregnant and a couple months behind me.) She was more gifted like Martha than I was. That year I had barely managed to decorate for Christmas, my little one was pushing my limits, and as much as I was looking forward to a night out with the girls, I barely made it to the gathering. I felt overwhelmed.
As I walked into my friend’s home, I felt like I walked into Christmas. Her home was beautifully decorated. She was a gracious and kind hostess, handing me a glass of seltzer with ice cubes with cranberries and mint frozen within. Dinner was nourishing and tasty. And my friend served dessert as well. These days I had enough trouble just getting dinner on the table for my little family: scrambled eggs or macaroni and cheese were staples.
As we left the leadership gathering, she handed out homemade party favors – pretzels dipped in chocolate, sprinkled with Christmas colored sugar, and nicely wrapped with a ribbon. By the time I left I was fully hooked by the comparison trap. Instead of soaking in the care provided, I was caught in a shame spiral, feeling my “not-enough-ness” all the way to my core.
The gift of our angst, or disruptive emotions, is that they inform us of the needs of our hearts:
The heat of anger can stir judgment and blame (self/others).
The nausea of shame can instigate hiding or withdrawal.
The discomfort of fear may trigger freeze, fight, or flight responses.
The energy of rage can produce contempt and disdain.
The ice of pride may lead to self-promotion and self-righteousness.
The swirl of anxiety can leave one hiding or striving.
The sadness of grief may feel overwhelming and heavy.
When I arrived home that night, instead of feeling refreshed and encouraged, I was filled with shame and anxiety. I may not have discharged my angst in blame, but I was captured, nonetheless. My feelings told me that something was happening in my heart. “Linger with what provokes you.” A spike of emotion: maybe its anger or shame, fear or grief can catch us like an ocean wave that we didn’t see coming.
Did you ever get tumbled at the ocean? A wave rises up and breaks over you with all the energy of the ocean, and you are tumbled. You are disoriented. You hit the sandy ocean floor, swallow too much salt water, struggle to catch a breath, and get thoroughly beat up. As I shared this metaphor of getting “tumbled by a wave” with my daughter, she reminded me that perhaps we see the first wave coming, successfully dive beneath it and ride the ocean energy with wisdom and skill. But after we rise with confidence and wipe the salt water from our eyes, we might get tumbled by the next wave.
We need to attend to our hearts with God. The unhealthy discharge of these emotions can damage relationships or our own soul. Emotion is energy. I first heard the phrase “name it to tame it” from Curt Thompson. So let us grow in learning to name emotion and pray it… or pray it until we can name it… and surrender it to the One who designed emotion in the first place.
At that Christmas gathering, as a first born, good girl, my strategies of self-sufficiency, or coping with life apart from God, were triggered for all sorts of reasons. In essence my patterns of sin: including people-pleasing, wanting to appear successful or capable, and a perfectionism of sorts were not “effective.”
There is grace here… because it is in this place of shame, or blame, that Jesus invites us to the one thing that is most needed… connection with Him. We are designed to partner with our Creator: to surrender, to follow, and to receive from God.
My identity, as a child of God, is not rooted in my Christmas decorations or my ability to prepare a meal and host a crowd. And your identity is not rooted in your skills or lack of skills, your appearance, your education or leadership capacity, your performance, or your income.
All our strategies for coping with life apart from God will fall short. Whether our self-sufficiency is rooted in rebellion, like the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, or is performance oriented, like the older brother in Jesus’ parable, God will always invite us to repent of our willful intent to be self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-referenced, self-focused… and in control.
The temptation is to find our identity, security, and stability in “self” rather than in relationship with God, knowing we are created and loved.
This can look like needing to be the problem solver or the one with the answers.
It can look like a perfectionistic bent that has no room for failure or being ordinary, average.
It can be a rebellious heart that demands freedom.
It can be the religious, pharisaical heart that is more committed to being right than to God Himself.
It can be a materialistic bent that seeks to find status in possessions.
It can be the codependent heart that seeks a sense of self in another person.
It can be a drive for significance that seeks status in power or meaning in experiences.
Our strategies for coping with life apart from God are diverse and many. Martha used blame and judgment as a strategy for handling her discomfort and overwhelm. We are not told in this brief account if Mary got caught in her own shame spiral in response to Martha’s blame and judgment. But I would not be surprised.
We all have strategies for coping with life apart from God. We have unique strategies for coping with life on our own that tempt us to turn away from God rather than turn to God, the One who loves us. These patterns can be blatant or sneaky. These patterns are what Paul references as walking in our flesh in his letters in the New Testament. We are saved not only from the “big, bad sins” of immorality, but also from our “look good” subtle sins of self-sufficiency.
REFLECT: Is there an uncomfortable, disruptive emotion that has captured you in the last week: anger, shame, resentment? What would it look like to bring those emotions into prayer?
Listen for God’s Response
When we are provoked and disruptive emotions spike we can turn to God and pray our angst. Then… the essential next step of prayer is to listen for God’s response.
We can’t stop with just venting our emotions to God… or we will remain fully self-focused and self-reliant... rooted in self rather than relationship. We will remain immature toddlers having temper tantrums because things don’t go our way.
Jesus so graciously and tenderly addresses Martha, “Martha, Martha.” And then he offers a reframe of her perspective. And if we were to pay attention to the next two accounts of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus we would see some life transformation in Martha, and Mary. Despite a dramatic death and resurrection... Lazarus is rather quiet in these stories.
Praying our unruly and real emotions is part of the journey of transformation. Our emotions are like the indicator lights and the gauges on the dashboard of our vehicles. When the engine light goes on it tells me something. The seatbelt light and beeping alert tells me something. The gauge that informs me that the gas tank is nearly empty is important. I prefer to fill to fill my tank before the gauge dips below a quarter tank, in contrast, my husband will wait until the needle dips into the red zone and the light goes on. We must pay attention when our dashboard lights up. Uncomfortable emotions operate like warning lights and gauges.
After we have turned to God and offered our emotions and needs, we ask God for his perspective of our experience… and then we listen. Martha offered Jesus her thoughts and emotions as skewed as they were. It was prayer. But her words to Jesus were only the beginning. The fullness of prayer is to listen for Jesus’ response. And in his response Jesus reminded Martha that listening to him is the one thing that is truly essential. The invitation is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his heart.
Attend to God, attend to your heart, and then attend to others.