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.” (Luke 10:38-42)
In this passage, we see Jesus clearly saying “no”—not to something that is being asked of Him, but to Martha’s busyness. Martha, it appears, was much like us today, busy spreading herself across many things while failing to take the time to discern the most essential thing. In this scene, we see her multitasking, trying to prepare a meal and also trying to spend time with Jesus, while her sister Mary sat with singular focus at the Teacher’s feet.
Martha, understandably perturbed, asks Jesus to step in and encourage Mary to help with the preparations. But Jesus says “no.” Why? He says that while Martha is worried about “many things…few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better.” In other words, Jesus said “no” because Martha wasn’t focused on what mattered most. In that moment, the most essential thing was not cooking another dish or cleaning up the house—it was sitting at the feet of Jesus. Commenting on this passage, Dr. Timothy Keller said, “[Mary] decided what was important, and she did not let the day-to-day get her away from that. As a result, she was drawn into a greatness we don’t even dream of. Because we are more like Martha than Mary, we’re sinking in a sea of mediocrity.”
The world is constantly pressuring us to be more like Martha than Mary, convincing us that the path to happiness and impact is in saying “yes” to more commitments, more jobs, and more responsibility. But here, Jesus offers us a better, simpler, saner way. He offers us the gift of saying “no” to the relatively unimportant in order to focus on the essential. He is offering us the path of less but better. “Few things are needed … indeed only one.”
It’s important to note that Jesus wasn’t asking Martha (or us for that matter) to do anything he hadn’t. Jesus was crystal clear on what his one essential thing was (preaching the gospel in preparation for the Passion he would perform on the cross) and he pursued that mission with relentless focus. Just before this exchange with Mary and Martha, we are told in Luke 9:51 that Jesus had “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Once Jesus was clear on his mission—what he was saying “yes” to—he got in the habit of saying “no” to the many nonessential things along the way. As you and I gain clarity on what is essential in our business and lives, we must do the same.