Martha was anxious and full of care about many things, and our Lord told her so. He said that “only one thing is needful, and Mary has chosen that good thing, which cannot be taken away from her.”
What exactly was that one good thing that Mary had chosen? Physically, of course, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him teach, while Martha was, as she thought, devotedly attending to the needs of the house.
Is the difference, then, that Mary was sitting still and Martha was running around? Reading II Thessalonians 2 and 3 persuades me that that isn’t it. There Paul summarizes the Christian opposition to idleness with words that actually are in the Bible but are quickly hidden away in a cupboard with the unused dishes: “If any man will not work, let him not eat.” There is nothing unspiritual about the work Martha was doing.
Or perhaps the difference was not physical, but intellectual. Mary was studying Jesus’ words while Martha was attending to the trivialities of a neat house. But I know this one too. I have had my Bible out and studied it very closely, parsing words, diagramming sentences, exegeting paragraphs, comparing contexts, reading commentaries, pulling out my analytical concordances and Greek dictionaries, but not resting in the present of our Lord. You can study the Bible right and still do it wrong. You can study the Bible in and from anxiety. Surely the Pharisees made that obvious.
Then what was the difference? You do have to attend to circumstances. Jesus was a travelling guest and they didn’t see him every day. Each, therefore, did what their personalities inclined them to do. Yet Jesus, in His insensitivity, told Martha that what she was doing, though it was natural to her, was so fatally flawed as to posses no value. On this matter, we cannot hide behind our personalities.
The more I think about this story and compare it with other passages, the more I realize that the difference was agonizingly simple. Martha was worried and anxious, and that prevented her from an act of the will. Mary, it tells us, has “chosen” something different. Mary made a choice. Martha was unable to because of all the anxieties.
And what was the good thing Mary had chosen? In a word, Jesus. She received Him, while Martha received fear and anxiety and stress. It didn’t help Martha with her work, because, as our Lord said, she was distracted about many things. She couldn’t focus. Her will was enfeebled. She was not acting from her will but from her passions. She was lessened by the experience.
Mary acted from her will. She said, “No!” to many important things and chose the one thing needful. She chose Him, and He gave her the power to become “a son of God,” as St. John expressed it.
The work that God has given us is good. Our task is to make it spiritual. But we cannot do so if we place the work and its distractions above the God who gave it to us. It all comes down to the will. Will we, who have been given all things, choose Christ and all things in Him, or will we allow everything to master us because it is overwhelmingly too much for us. Let us choose the one thing needful, and in Him choose ourselves.