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Mary and Martha: Choosing the Good Portion

October 17, 2018

“I can’t do it!”

My five-year-old collapsed on the floor in tears, overwhelmed by the task at hand. Even with my coaching and encouragement, she had become exasperated with her efforts at writing the alphabet. No big deal, you might think, but this wasn’t an assignment from her teacher—this was an assignment she had given herself.

I tried reminding her that this wasn’t necessary and that going to play would really do her some good, but she insisted this had to be done despite collapsing under the pressure—the pressure of wrong priorities she had put on herself. Yes, this is my Type-A firstborn and, truthfully, that apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.

How many times have I ended up on the floor, collapsed under pressures and priorities of my own making?

Mary and Martha

In Luke 10:38-42, we meet a familiar friend. Her name is Martha, and she also had a priority problem. In this passage, she invites Jesus to her house as a token of her love for him. Perhaps Martha started her day staring out her window; she had heard that Jesus was in a nearby town, and she eagerly anticipated his arrival.

Martha was a dynamic character: proactive, hospitable, and hard-working. These are not faults! But, as Martha works, we see something shift or, better yet, something revealed. What starts as a heart of service seems to devolve into a heart embittered by overwhelming pressure.

In a gentle, yet powerful exchange between Martha and Jesus, we get to a window into the inner-workings of her heart. When Jesus tenderly reprimands her, he does not condemn her work; rather he speaks to the priority of her work. He points out that she is “anxious and troubled about many things.” He goes on to say that only one thing “is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (v. 42, emphasis mine).

There were many things vying for Martha’s attention—all things she had demanded of herself when all Jesus asked of her was nearness.

Many Distractions

In verse 40 we read that Martha was “distracted with much serving.” If Martha was close enough to the Lord to see Mary sitting at his feet and close enough to ask him a question, she was close enough to hear him speak. But I have a feeling that his words were just white noise taking a back seat to the tasks—the distractions—she had placed on herself.

I am so much like Martha; at times I’m overwhelmed by my tasks. I start out serving, loving, and providing, but end up adding expectations that God didn’t put on me. I add requirements that God never commanded and pile on yeses that God never gave the okay for, all the while forgetting what is important and necessary. And, like Martha, I can let the “many things” distract me from the “good portion.”

Right Priorities

Alternatively, in Mary’s example we get to see what it looks like to prioritize the places God has called us. All of us are first called to love the Lord with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength (Matthew 22:37). Jesus calls this the greatest commandment; in other words, this is our top priority. For me, I am next called to love and serve my husband, and then to love and serve my children. Everything else I do follows suit according to the Holy Spirit’s leading.

When my oldest was in a puddle on the floor, I turned off the stove top to sit on the floor next to her. Sure, preparing dinner was an important and good service, but that moment with her took priority.

I don’t always make the right decision, though. I’m ashamed with how often I prioritize other good things over loving my children properly. I’m even more ashamed with how often I prioritize other good things over loving my God properly.

But my shame and my failure doesn’t have the last word. God is always at work in his children, sanctifying and renewing us, and never leaving us alone as we seek to love him first. As he works to change my heart, I don’t have to live in the shame of my failures, but I can, by faith, drink anew from his living water and abundant grace that first drew me to himself. I, too, can be like a tree planted by living water, where the roots first planted in faith grow stronger and deeper and more fruitful each day.

The Good Portion

When Mary chose the good portion, she was choosing to keep her priorities straight, and that resulted in Jesus, the Messiah, receiving her full and undivided attention and affection. She was choosing to sit at his feet, listen to his words, and have a full, unbroken view of his face. She was a tree planted by rivers of living water, drawing life from the One who could truly give it (Psalm 1:3). In my imagination it seems that Mary sat so still, so quiet, and so enraptured with Jesus’s words that she nearly grew roots right into in the floor.

Our good portion may not look so still and beautiful, but it can still be a face turned toward the Lord. Choosing the good portion requires consistently aligning and realigning our hearts to the greatest commandment to love him first. It means to seek his kingdom first, all the while laying down our burdens (Matthew 22:37; 6:33; 11:28).

Seek First

Matthew 6:25-34 could easily be a commentary on Martha’s heart, and our own. As Jesus shares all the things that make our hearts anxious—what we eat, drink, or wear—he points his audience to what is truly necessary, saying, “The Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6: 32-33, emphasis mine).

That, my friends, is the good portion. That is where our hearts find relief, our souls find rest, and our lives find right priorities. That is where we remember that some of the weight of service we carry is a real high-calling from God. But, some of it, simply, is not.

Eventually, my daughter let go of the alphabet and decided princess dresses were more fun. And one day I, too, might settle into the skill of choosing the good portion. For now, I will continue practicing because, as a wise preschool teacher once told me, “We’re working on it.”

[Photo Credit: Unsplash]

The Author
Amy Dunham

Amy Dunham is a stay-at-home mom with three little girls, one strong husband, and a quirky schnoodle. She is author of Soul Rest: A Journey with Jesus (RBP, May 2017). While she navigates motherhood, Amy shares how the gospel of Jesus Christ ministers to moms and changes families as they trudge through the ordinary trenches of extraordinary motherhood. Follow her blog at

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