Story: Mary, Martha, and the One Needful Thing.

For the weekly videos, I now tell a story. I’ve realized that for me, and I think for many people, a story is what holds my attention and makes a point most powerfully.

This week’s story: The story of Mary and Martha.


If you’d like to read the story as told in the King James Bible, here it is, from  Luke 10:38-42:

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.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

I love this story. You?

If you want to read more along these lines, check out…

Happiness challenge: saying the right thing.

First things first.

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  • Sassy

    The video shows as “private” when I try to listen. Am I missing something?

    • gretchenrubin

      Whoops! Sorry! Fixed.

  • The video is not playing correctly. It says “This video is private.”

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! fixed now.

  • Mitzie

    Same problem with “private” video here. I do love this story from the Bible, though. 🙂

  • Rachel

    Thanks for sharing a familiar (to me, anyway) Bible story. There is so much wisdom and insight to be gained from the Bible, no matter one’s faith.

  • myzyczny zespół

    I also love the story, I wish now that people so rarely go back to the Bible…

  • chelle

    When I think of Needful Things, Stephen King comes to mind. Had no idea it was a Jesus reference

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I just made that connection myself when I was preparing for this video. LOVE Stephen King.

  • yvee

    Would love to hear other meanings of this story. Plus, I admit, I’m a Martha. Careful and troubled about many things.

  • Thank you for this!!

  • Robin Benjamin

    Love it!

  • Clare

    Okay, I’ll say it… this story has always made me so angry, even when I heard it as a little girl. I know I am probably missing the point, and I appreciate you talking about how it is really about focusing on what is important in the moment. BUT… I always wanted to be a Mary, and sit around listening and thinking and being intellectually engaged, but I was always forced, by societal expectations, to be a Martha, and rush around taking care of everyone. After all, someone has to do the chores, right? (And that someone always seems to be the women…) So, for Jesus to chide Martha for taking care of everyone always seemed so unfair, and also seemed like clueless male privilege to boot. I am more than willing to try to see this story differently if someone could help my poor, slow brain to do so… But right now I am still consumed with the indignation and frustration I have always felt on Martha’s behalf.

    • EllieA

      I agree, Clare. This story always made me indignant in the same way as you. I will try to take on Gretchen’s more positive take on it.

    • Jen

      Yes, it always seemed to me that Martha was taken for granted, the same way as the story of the minister giving thanks to God for his meal, but not recognising the efforts of his wife who cooked it.

      Mind you, I think my reaction is more about me, because it always seemed to me the stay-at-home son was taken for granted in the Prodigal Son parable too, and I identify more with both Martha and the dutiful son.

    • Kathryn

      I totally hear you. And I completely agree that on the whole women throughout history and to this day are forced by society and by our own caring and nurturing nature to more often then not be the Martha’s. I hope we find a way to raise our heads from this though as life needs our attention. Now more than ever, “What is needful?”

    • Renee Getreu

      I believe that what is significant about Martha’s response is not WHAT she chose to do, but HOW she was going about it. If she was inspired by God to be preparing the meal, and had her mind on God’s love and provision as she went about it, I don’t believe Jesus would have chided her. Instead she had her mind on resenting her choice, and “feeling forced” by society or whatever and that is simply not the truth. She was making a choice and then feeling victimized by her choice. What could be more disempowering! Better to take responsibility for one’s choices and choose with God rather than based on what someone else thinks or expects. If we choose with God, we will be in the flow of His love, peace and “happiness,” even though we may “work hard” or “suffer” in the process. If we choose to please someone else instead, we will always resent it at some point. And choosing with God opens up possibilities that we probably would never have thought of, had we not stopped to ask for heavenly direction. In those possibilities lies the solution that God would most love to see us embrace for any situation. There is a way of grace to walk in this world that does not impose (lean unfairly on) anyone, including ourselves.

      • Edward

        You know, this is probably the best interpretation of this passage that I’ve ever read. I’ve struggled for years to understand the meaning here, sitting through years of priests who had clearly never been in Martha’s shoes coming up with very strained explanations of what it means. Thank you for this.

  • Sharyn

    Just connected the dots, from your interview post last week……

    Martha was prevention-focused, Mary was promotion focused.

    Maybe neither was “wrong”, just needing to work on what they needed to work on.

  • HL

    I agree with Clare. I hate this story too because men love to use it to justify doing nothing around the house. Meet my father and father-in-law. They use this story as justification of their being “godly” in their failing to help their wives (my mother and mother-in-law) cook, clean, or take care of anything that needs to be taken care of in the household. It’s not godliness, it’s laziness and lack of consideration.

    • gretchenrubin

      Right, I don’t think that’s the right interpretation of the story at all!

  • Tanya

    Thanks so much for this post. I woke this morning feeling completely overwhelmed and indignant about trying to complete a thesis, run a company from overseas, educate my two children, support my husband in his profession, whilst on my quest for “happiness” for me and ultimately my family and anyone who comes into contact with us 🙂

    I had not heard the story, but with many stories from the new testament, I find them grating in some way – I see male superiority with woman servitude, But ultimately it comes back to choice, we can choose the roles we take on, troubled, needful and exhausted, or not…..

    so I will ponder this for the day……..and where our responsibility really is…..thanks Gretchen!!!

  • wypożyczalnia samochodów łódź


  • peninith1

    The very message of the story is what those who are irritated by it and angry at it are MISSING. You may be caught up in the importance of your busy-ness, and justifying your life based on how vital your housekeeping, driving, arranging, and managing seems to be. BUT your busy-ness is completely trivial and wasted self importance if you are not willing to put down your cellphone, carpet beater, broom, mixing bowl or whatever and listen to the call of the divine in your life when it breaks in on the every day. If the lord of the universe showed up at your house, would you REALLY fuss over the coffee service and not just sit down and PAY ATTENTION? This is not about what one does all the time, but about what one does in a critical moment. BOTH Mary and Martha had a right and a responsibility in that particular moment. Only one responded appropriately. This story is not a lesson to do what I used to think, divide humanity into the active and contemplative, and reward only the contemplative with approval. It points out that when something vitally important to our souls appears, we had best turn our attention to it and not fritter away the moment in busy self-absorption.

    • emptynester0605

      Yes! Yes! Yes! peninith1 said it so eloquently! So well said:) I have thought about this story many times and had the feeling that things did have to get done but yet I see that what Mary did was the most important. I just love this explanation:) Thanks!!!

    • Linda

      The story has always bothered me because I KNOW I would have been right there in the kitchen with Martha. I realize that Mary had the right answer–but doesn’t anybody see that lunch isn’t ready and they are going to want to eat!! 🙂

    • Malcolm

      I’m obviously a few months late to the discussion, but your post prompted a few questions and thoughts in my mind. I hope someone will come along to answer them. First, I have a hard time characterizing Martha as self-absorbed or unjustifiably caught up in the importance of her housekeeping, etc. Presumably Jesus (or at least his 12 disciples) would not expect to just arrive at the house of friends and not be given hospitality of some kind. A meal for 13 would require quite a lot of work, even if a simple meal, and I can easily imagine Martha would have loved to be in Mary’s position. But, again, eating is a necessity for humans, and travelers rely on hosts to provide food. Few people who serve others do so in a mode of self-absorption. So why not take the attitude of “let’s all make some food together and talk while we prepare the food and eat together?” It would seem to be both egalitarian and show awareness of the difficulty of balancing our human nature with our relationship to God. If everyone was a Mary–what then? Could we even have Mary’s without Martha’s? I have difficulty understanding why the occasion wasn’t an opportunity to say “let’s all help each other with these human necessities so that we can get them out of the way and focus on God more.”

      Second, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were arguably in the same peer group, and had a very familiar, friendly relationship with Jesus, and Jesus never regards himself or expects to be regarded as the “lord of the universe.” It goes against much of what He is trying to convey through his life about the human relationship to God. But if He wanted to be regarded as such, then would Martha’s serving have not been just as necessary as Mary’s attention? It would seem hard to view hospitality as part of the everyday when it was given to Jesus.

  • Ginger

    I love this story too! It is hard to remember the needful things, and this is an excellent reminder. Thanks for featuring a story from the Bible. There is so much wisdom to be found there.

  • lyzki

    have excellent diction, I really enjoyed your performance…

  • elektryk

    interesting article,

  • Kathryn

    LOVE this! And I am not at all religious. It is so true and so extremely important that we get it, “What is the one needful thing?”. So often this is missed for the hurrying and the busyness and the tending to the details.