The Seventh Sunday after Trinity August 6, 2000


One Thing Is Needful

Luke 10:38-42


279, 428, 366, 45

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. So far the Holy Word.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, Who said, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Dear Fellow-Redeemed,

Don’t sweat the small stuff.”—I’ll never forget that handy little rule. It was taught me by an older gal who worked as a waitress in a restaurant where I was a waiter. I was in college at the time, and I have to admit I wasn’t a very good waiter. I was too distracted by detail. Often I’d be arranging water glasses precisely on a tray, or making sure the nuts were sprinkled just so on a hot fudge sundae, when there was hot food waiting to be delivered to the customers. “Don’t forget what’s important,” my friend told me. “When there’s too much to do, don’t sweat the small stuff.”

A lot of Christians have a similar problem. They get all wrapped up in the details and distractions of their daily lives. So much so, that they lose sight of the single most important thing there is—hearing God’s Word. The account of Mary and Martha is a great example. If the worries and cares of this life have been robbing you of your peace of mind lately, then Jesus has a cure for you today. He reminds us, in the words of our theme, that—


  1. Neglect the Word—and everything else is useless.
  2. Hear the Word—and everything else follows!

The little village of Bethany lay a couple of miles outside Jerusalem, on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Jesus entered the town, and immediately He was invited into one of the homes there for dinner. The home belonged to two sisters and a brother; their names were Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It’s important for us to note that this family already knew Jesus. In fact, the Bible indicates that they were already believers.

Knowing that helps us understand what this story is about—and what it’s not about. It’s not about “making a decision for Christ” (stick with me here, because this is important.) I mention it because there are false teachers among the Reformed churches today who insist that an unbeliever has the power to “decide for Christ.” Essentially, they’re saying that each person has the power to turn himself from an unbeliever into a believer. This “Decision Theology” insists that the unbeliever must take the first step toward God, must “decide to turn his life over to Jesus,” before he can be saved. But you know what?—That’s impossible! We learn just how impossible it is in Ephesians chapter two. There Paul reminds us, “Even when we were DEAD in trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ by grace you have been saved.—Eph 2:5. Only the Holy Ghost can make a believer out of an unbeliever. An unbeliever can no more “decide for Christ” than a dead man can “decide” to bring himself back to life again!

Decision Theology would say that Mary made the right choice and believed in Jesus, while Martha made the wrong choice and rejected Jesus. But the Bible makes it very clear: both women were already believers.

Martha, too, welcomed Jesus gladly into her house. She referred to Him as “Lord.” She no doubt believed that He was the promised Savior. Martha’s only had one problem: she temporarily lost sight of the ONE THING NEEDFUL. She failed to realize this fact: neglect the Word—and everything else is useless!

The two women reacted differently to Jesus’ arrival. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving. Martha was preoccupied. Maybe she wasn’t expecting Jesus. She certainly wanted to prepare the best meal possible for their honored Guest, and there was a lot to do. So she hustled about, feverishly trying to get things ready. The text says she was “distracted;” the Greek word means she literally was “pulled” or “dragged away” from Jesus because of her work. Was there enough to eat? Would the food be done on time? What if Jesus didn’t like it? And where was that lazy sister of hers? At the end of her rope, Martha came up to Jesus and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.

It wasn’t that she was doing something bad. What she was doing was good—even necessary. It was her timing that was bad. There’s a time to work, and a time to stop working and listen to the Lord. Jesus once said, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you.—John 6:27. The thing she misunderstood was that all her preparations were nothing compared with the opportunity Jesus was presenting her to hear His life-giving Word. Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful. Neglect the Word, Jesus was telling her, and all your other activity is useless, empty—even dangerous.

I’ll ask you a question. If you could have been in the house that day, what would you have done? Would you have sat down with Mary—or would you have felt it your duty to pitch in and help Martha with the meal? For myself I’m not so sure—maybe you’re not either! Life in this frantic world of 1999 seems to hold so many things to trouble and distract us. If you own a business, you’re worried about overhead, employee costs and profit margins. Office workers are concerned with raises, pensions, and office politics. Parents have plenty to be distracted about, what with their children’s health, their homework, their activities. What about clubs and organizations? There now are so many of them that some of us seem to have all our evenings filled up with meetings.

Have you allowed yourself to be distracted from the ONE THING NEEDFUL? Is there something tugging at you? Pulling you away from Jesus? An observation: our average Sunday attendance here at Ascension is roughly one-half of our membership. That means that, on any given Sunday, one-half of the members will be here in God’s house attending to God’s Word, and half will be someplace else. What about you? Can you afford to allow these precious opportunities to slip past you? Remember: there’s a time to work, and a time to stop work and listen to the Word of your Lord. Take heed to your Savior’s warning question, “For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?—Mat 16:26.

Today—and every day—you are invited to leave your anxieties and your troubles behind. You’re invited to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from Him. Perhaps you’ll object, “But Pastor, there are other important things in my life besides church and Bible study and personal devotions. I can’t just drop everything and hear the Word.” God’s answer to you is: YES, YOU CAN. And the reason is clear—because when you hear the Word, everything else follows! Jesus said, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

What does our text say about Mary?—Not really very much, when you think about it! It says simply, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His Word. That’s the only thing she did—but what an important thing! Like a flower turning its petals toward the sun, Mary looked into the face of her Savior and let His soothing words comfort her soul. Mary recognized that the ONE THING SHE NEEDFUL above everything else was to hear God’s Word. Everything else is less important. In fact, when you take care to choose this good thing, you’ll see that God will supply you with everything else you need! Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.—Mt 6:33.

What do you get when you regularly hear God’s Word? Well, what did Mary get? Let’s look.

First of all, when you pay attention to the ONE THING NEEDFUL, you get peace of conscience. I’m sure Mary did! Mary, after all, wasn’t that much different than you and me. She no doubt had problems that needed her attention, just like Martha did, just like we do. But deep down, her greatest need was the need for forgiveness, the need to be right with God. And she came to the right place to fulfill that need! Because what do you suppose Jesus was talking about as Mary sat there at His feet? I think He had to be talking about His work of redemption. I’m sure He was telling Mary that she need not afraid—“Though you are a sinner,” He may have said, “you will not be punished for your sins. I Myself will be the sacrifice that will take away your sin, and the sin of the whole world!”

Those kind words are for you, as well. Jesus kept the whole Law in your place, in order to give you the perfect righteousness you need to be truly right with God. With the precious blood He shed on the cross, Jesus erased from God’s book every sin you’ve ever committed.—Yes, even for those times when we forgot the ONE THING NEEDFUL; even for those times when we allowed the worries and troubles of this world to distract us from God’s Word.

Does your conscience bother you? Do your sins weigh heavily on your soul? Come and sit at Jesus’ feet! Trust in Him. Listen to His reassuring Word: “Fear not, for I have put away your sin. You shall not die, but shall live with Me in eternal happiness in heaven. All this I give you as a free gift. Take it, and rejoice in it! I have called you by your name; you belong to Me!”

Jesus has solved the great problem of sin. He did it for Mary, and He’s done it for us. He solved it once and for all with His death on the cross. Now I ask you: with that problem behind you, all your other problems sort of seem to lose their bite, don’t they? What can really cause us trouble and anxiety anymore, when our Lord Jesus has promised us a place in heaven? Oh, I suppose you could still find things to worry and fret about if you tried, but what’s the point? Paul reminds us, “He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The LORD is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’—Heb 13:5-6.

Hear the Word—and everything else follows. Because finally, the solution to ALL your problems really does lie in the ONE THING NEEDFUL. Maybe you’ve been struck with an illness lately. Perhaps you’ve been having family problems, troubles with your spouse or your children. Maybe you’ve got financial problems, and you’re wondering where you’ll find the money to cover your bills—REMEMBER: ONE THING IS NEEDFUL. First of all, make sure you and your family are found at Jesus’ feet on Sunday morning—listening to God’s Word here in God’s house. Take advantage of every opportunity to hear His word in personal Bible study and daily devotions with your family. Make sure your children are in Sunday school, sitting at their Savior’s feet and hearing His Word. If you choose the ONE THING NEEDFUL, I guarantee that all your other problems will be taken care of by the Lord. Or rather, God is the one who guarantees it in His Word. As Paul says in Romans, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us ALL things?—Rom 8:32.

To my mind, one of the most comforting things about this text lies in the last sentence. Jesus said, Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. You can lose all your money. You can lose your house, your car, your family, your friends. Even your health can be taken from you. But God’s Word is a treasure that can never be taken away from you. Every time you read that Word with your family, every time you come to church to hear it preached, that precious Word will be a fountain of salvation to you, springing up to everlasting life. That’s why Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.—Mat 6:19-21. AMEN.

—Paul Naumann, Pastor

Sermon Preached July 18, 1999
Ascension Lutheran Church, Tacoma WA

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