What Is the One Thing? — Visiting with Mary and Martha, part 9

There is just one thing?

This is the ninth in a series of twelve reflections on the story of Mary and Martha, found in Luke 10.38-42. If you’d like to read the whole series, start with the first post , where they are listed in full at the end of the piece.

As always, let’s begin with the text:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” — Luke 10.38-42 (NRSV)

A glass of water.

It’s like water for your soul.

What is the one thing?

Jesus says, “There is need of only one thing.” What is that one thing?? I would like to know! Like Martha, I feel that there are so many things — but I would heartily enjoy just one thing. Can it be? The idea is so tantalizing. I feel like the woman at the well in John 4 who, in response to Jesus’s description of the living water he offers, cries out, “Give me this living water!” (In some translations Jesus says, “only a few things,” which feels a bit different — but I think even narrowing it down to just a few things would be helpful.)

Looking at the text and thinking sensibly about this, it seems reasonable to say: “The one thing is sitting at Jesus’s feet like Mary and listening to him.” I can accept that, but I feel like it is not the whole story. It is certainly possible (and important) to carve out time to sit at Jesus’s feet, but there are other things to do in a day as well. Could there be a way to sit at his feet while we are doing the work he calls us to do, in that Brother Lawrence practicing-the-presence-of-Jesus style? What does that look like, and how can I do it?

I have toyed with the idea that “the one thing” could perhaps mean “one thing at a time.” (I believe this thought is not original to me, but I cannot remember where I read or heard it first.) Not that there is anything inherently wrong with multitasking, but it can be a slippery on-ramp into a state of rushing, task-orientation, and losing sight of what is important. Dallas Willard famously encourages us to ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives. When I focus on one thing at a time, it’s must easier to eliminate the hurry — although that’s not a foolproof trick.

I wonder, too, if the “one thing” might be another way to talk about the Kingdom of God. Could it be that the focus Jesus invites us into isn’t so much about one’s activity level, but about one’s inner world — our purpose, our motivation, and the state of our hearts? I wonder if Martha could have been pursuing the “one thing” even while she was cooking. There can be great joy and peace in slicing an onion and listening to it sizzle in a pan, as long as you’re relaxed and fully present. But add a cramped timetable and a list of other pressing tasks, and the cooking becomes an insufferable burden.

Could there have been a way for Martha to pay attention to the one thing? Was her focus more on the tasks or on her image than on the person of Jesus? I’m right there with her on most days. Can I hear Jesus’s gentle invitation?

What tasks in my life have a habit of becoming burdensome?
Can I find freedom through a shift in attitude?
How can I seek the “one thing” in my daily work?
What practices might help me to return my focus on the “one thing”?

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