Sitting at Jesus’ Feet to Hear His Word

A painting of Christ seated in the house of Mary and Martha. Mary is seated at his feet and Martha serving Him a basket of bread.

“…as they went, He entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard His word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came up 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 the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

We find Jesus of Nazareth here traveling throughout the whole region, blessing and honoring the country villages with His divine presence and favor. He came as the human representative of the divine Triune Beings (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who “…was made flesh, and dwelt among us…,” the living demonstration of the eternal Word of God (John 1:14). Divine power had been given to Jesus as a man to heal the sick and raise the dead. At this time, He was traveling toward a particular village near Jerusalem called Bethany, where His good friends, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus lived. Jesus’ disciples accompanied Him on this visit to Bethany as they participated in their Master’s most important activity—traveling from place to place to do good.

Jesus was not going to Bethany looking for public approval or people to support Him. Nor did He go there just to relax. He went there to spread the Gospel as far as possible. And His Holy Spirit was getting ready to strengthen and reassure the troubled souls of Bethany. As Jesus walked toward the village, He touched and healed all who believed, through faith, that He was God’s only begotten Son restoring them to health, and at the same time, He was “…healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with Him” (Acts 10:38). The heavenly Father had appointed Jesus for this very task, and the miracles He did were the highest evidence that His divine Father had sent Him. The miracles of Jesus were the kind that only God could perform.

Lithograph print of young David being anointed by older Samuel the priest while two others and a soldier look on

Consecrated by the Oil

In ancient days, kings and priests were usually anointed with oil when they were consecrated to their position. This is also a characteristic of the anointing by the Holy Spirit, whom we find here consecrating Jesus for His coming work as the Messiah. His Father anointed Him with the Holy Spirit on this earth, and then set Him apart in order to do this work. By God’s divine authority, the oil of the Holy Spirit flowed over Him, symbolizing God’s presence in the Spirit and body of His only begotten Son. By this means God the Father acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah—the eternal, living source of spiritual food for our souls.

And at one particular household in Bethany, He knew that He was certain He’d still be welcome there. Martha was expecting Him to come to see her and Mary and Lazarus. She also knew that receiving Jesus at their house along with those in His company would involve much food preparation and serving.

A Crowd Descending

By this time in His ministry, many had rejected Christ and would no longer welcome Him where they lived, much less entertain Him. Everywhere in the region, people were speaking against Him. Yet Jesus was still dear to the true remnant, just as they were also still dear to Him. And at one particular household in Bethany, He knew that He was certain He’d still be welcome there. Martha was expecting Him to come to see her and Mary and Lazarus. She also knew that receiving Jesus at their house along with those in His company would involve much food preparation and serving. At least seventy people traveled with Him and He had already sent some to travel two by two to the other villages ahead of Him. So, they arrived at Martha’s house before He did. Crowds of people from the local village also came out of curiosity to see Jesus and surrounded the house. The crowd that was about to descend for a meal at the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus must have been enormous!

Martha Became Frantic

Then Jesus arrived and Lazarus and his sisters welcomed Him and all the others with Him to their place. The two sisters had the same love for Jesus, because they had already received Him not only into their house, but also into their hearts. At this point, Martha was troubled with much serving, since Mary had left her by herself to serve the people after Jesus arrived. Then Martha became so busy and anxious trying to serve the Lord and His many followers that she let herself become frantic. She must have been thinking, “What is this? My sister sits herself down at the feet of Jesus, while I’m left here to cook for and serve all these people!” So she became vexed and irritated over this situation concerning Mary. Martha’s attitude toward Mary made her forget that what she was doing was really for sake of the Lord Jesus, who had come to spend time with them. She did not recognize that she was opening a way for the enemy to come into her situation. He was busy injecting discord, jealousy, and aggravation into the scene. This, in turn, opened a way for him to hinder Martha’s walk with Jesus.

Painting of Mary sitting and the feet of Jesus while He is teaching

Mary Focused on Jesus

Throughout all of this, Mary had an attitude of complacency, which really troubled her sister. Martha must have fumed, “Why doesn’t Mary respond to me and help serve these guests?” Her thoughts surrounded and troubled her. If she had focused her mind on the presence of Jesus there instead, she would have been less likely to dictate to Him or to complain about Mary. Instead Martha, being by this time very troubled about all of this, “…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” (Luke 10:40).

Too often we get so busy in activities for Him that we end up in the same frantic condition as Martha. Before long, we begin to worry and feel weighed down in our service for the Lord.

Over-involvement in Service

Jesus loved both sisters, and His response to her was, “…Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:40-42).By saying this, He showed that He approved of and appreciated what Mary had done in choosing to sit at His feet and learn from Him. Many followers of Jesus today are more often concerned about doing things to serve God than about being in His presence. Too often we get so busy in activities for Him that we end up in the same frantic condition as Martha. Before long, we begin to worry and feel weighed down in our service for the Lord. How easily we forget that the better part, the one “thing most needful,” is simply to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from Him. We make time to fulfill our desires for ourselves, but what about setting aside time for His spiritual presence in our lives? May the Lord keep us from falling into the same trap of over-involvement in service that Martha did, to the extent that we feel that we cannot take time to just sit and learn of Him!

Photo of an African-American man wearing glasses while reading a Bible and holding his left up towards his mouth

Seeking God

We need to be like Mary—to sit still and worship at the feet of Jesus and to let Him instruct us. The most important thing anyone can do is to seek the divine presence of God. Mary chose the better portion from her heart as she clung to this most important part—Jesus and His Word. The Word of Jesus is the seed of incorruptible life, that will live and remain in us forever. This is the better portion for our lives also—the divine link between our soul and God “…which will not be taken away” (Luke 10:42).

The Heart of Martha

Both sisters believed in Jesus, both really loved Him, yet each had a different approach to serving Him. Mary was seeking the truth of the words of Jesus and letting her spirit, soul, and heart absorb them. Jesus was sitting in the house of Martha in the natural realm, but spiritually, He was working in the heart of Martha. The faith God had given her was still in her heart. She understood that Jesus is the Messiah—but no more than that. This hindered her spiritual relationship with Him, unlike her sister. Martha’s faith failed to advance further, and she therefore served Him only as the Messiah. Does this sound familiar in relation to our own spiritual faith in God in our hearts, concerning a true understanding of who Jesus really is? Are we like Martha before our Lord: busy, distracted, and frantic? or are we like Mary, who appreciated the opportunity to sit at His feet, to listen to His Word and to learn of Him?

Was it more important for Martha to do a fine deed for the Lord than to come humbly into His presence and listen to Him? ‘Martha people’ determine how much faith they have by how much activity they can work up.

Humble in His Presence

Some might suspect that what Mary did at the feet of Jesus displayed less evidence of her love than what Martha did. However, to Him it was actually the more acceptable of the two. Martha honored Jesus as one of His followers, like any righteous, saved Jew might. She believed she was subject to Him as King, since Jesus was her Messiah. Martha was content in her faith in this relationship. It motivated her to receive Jesus into her house as a guest. But it was her sister who was determined to sit at His feet and hear the divine living Word, which could not be taken away from her. In Mary’s case, it was not so much what she did for Jesus. Instead, she sensed His greatness and love for her so much that she took the place of humility at His feet and became more aware of the divine fullness in Him for her. Was it more important for Martha to do a fine deed for the Lord than to come humbly into His presence and listen to Him? ‘Martha people’ determine how much faith they have by how much activity they can work up. But this really applies more to self than to faith. If true humility really was the source of all this activity, a lot would get done, but there wouldn’t be so much extra noise and activity and self-promotion in doing it.  

A painting by Johannes Vermeer of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary cropped to show Jesus speaking to Martha

Martha’s Concern for Herself

Martha felt a sense of importance by being in charge of the preparations here. She also felt that others didn’t do their part like she did, which constantly made her task more difficult. She had a degree of love for herself, and therefore could not appreciate the kind of love that was deeper than hers, a love that does not seek to be admired for itself. Martha was more concerned with what Mary was doing, or failing to do, from her standpoint, than she was about how Jesus felt about the matter. Therefore, she didn’t hesitate to dictate to Him that He should have forced Mary to get back in the kitchen where she belonged, from Martha’s point of view.

Martha served Jesus zealously, but she did it her way, according to her own will. His dignified reply reflected His honest affection for her.

Martha Tells Jesus What to Do

“…Lord, dost thou not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me” (Luke 10:40). Here Martha doesn’t hesitate to tell Jesus what to do! She does not apologize for not coming out to hear what He is saying. She does not tell Him how much she has missed His visits to their home. She does not even ask what He wants in this situation. She accuses Him of not caring about her workload! What a strange attitude of a hostess toward her honored guest! If Martha is a true servant of the Lord, why is she telling Him what to do? If only Martha had fully comprehended that Jesus is Jehovah Elohim Himself, the eternal covenant Lord God, she never would have spoken so rudely to Him. Martha served Jesus zealously, but she did it her way, according to her own will. His dignified reply reflected His honest affection for her. He did not upbraid her directly, but kindly said instead, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things…” (Luke 10:41).

Pressing Toward the Mark

Sometimes we respond to circumstances the way Martha did with Mary. Mary was already mature in Christ. She followed after the Word of God, in order that she might grasp more of what she had already understood of Christ. She did not consider herself “to have apprehended: but this one thing…” she did, “…forgetting those things which are behind, reaching forth unto those things which were now before…” (Philippians 3:13). Mary sat quietly at Jesus’ feet listening to His Word, pressing “…toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (verse 14). When Martha blamed even the Lord Jesus for permitting this before her, she was yielding to her own self-interested needs which became a spiritual hindrance. We should sit at the feet of our Lord spiritually, like Mary did physically, and think like she did. Then we can also touch the true essence of God by sitting at the feet of Christ. Mary sat there in readiness to receive Jesus’ eternal living Word. We need that same kind of submission to His guidance that she had.

A line drawing of a box trap held by a stick with a red string attached while leaning over a red heart.

The Perfect Kind of Snare

Martha was busy trying to provide the dinner on behalf of Christ and all who came with Him, because of her respect for the Lord and her careful management of the household affairs. But one thing was worthy of blame in this aspect. Her bountiful serving was adequate, and she would certainly have had a wide array of everything appropriate for the dinner. But worldly business of this type can become the perfect kind of snare to deceive and hinder us from serving the Lord in a spiritual manner, and getting our souls right with Him. Martha was found to be imperfect in her walk with God concerning this meal, despite the fact that she was a true believer in both her heart and her overall conduct. She was guilty of neglecting the “one thing [that] is needful”—sitting at His feet. Mary, on the other hand, sat before her Lord, in His presence at His feet, representing the chosen remnant that pays attention to what is most needed first. Once that is done, all the other things will also be pursued in the right way.

Mary chose Christ and sought to honor and please Him, while Martha chose only to provide for His bodily, temporary needs to honor and please Him.

Who Was to Blame?

Martha had a heart for others. She really did care. Her work for the Lord was acceptable in its proper place. But here before her brother’s guests, something else needed to be taken care of that was more needful to her at this time, something which should have been done first. She expected Jesus to blame Mary for not doing what Martha felt she was supposed to do concerning the meal. Instead, Jesus indirectly blamed Martha for not doing what Mary did, because her sister had chosen the best part—Christ—the very reason she sat at His feet and listened to His Word. Jesus stated that Mary experienced the best part of life. And the choice she made will be justified in the end, along with all who make the same kind of choice and then live by it. Jesus applauded her wisdom for choosing the better part. Mary chose Christ and sought to honor and please Him, while Martha chose only to provide for His bodily, temporary needs to honor and please Him. 

Hearing Jesus Explain the Word

Jesus most likely began preaching the gospel while He waited for the meal to be prepared. He would never have wasted such a great opportunity to share the Word with His friends and disciples. And Mary was not going to waste this splendid opportunity of hearing Him explain the Word in person, in her very presence. Jesus believed that it was more important to talk about the Gospel at that time than it was to eat. And it is more important for us to listen to it whenever we can seize an opportunity also.

A painting by Johannes Vermeer of Christ in the house of Martha and Mary cropped to show Mary at the feet of Jesus

Sitting at Jesus’ Feet

Mary sat right at Jesus’ feet to hear, a sign that she was paying close attention to every word. She had her mind ready to receive from the Lord and wasn’t going to let a single word slip by. In those days, scholars in the East would sit at the feet of their highly respected tutors as the lectures were read, the same way the Apostle Paul was brought up to sit at the feet of Gamaliel. Mary was following in line with this, seeking the best part at the feet of her preferred Master and Tutor. When we kneel in prayer seeking peace and refuge in our troubled times, we hope and believe our prayers will be answered. Sitting at Jesus’ feet to hear His Word shows our readiness and willingness to receive from Him. We have the choice of sitting at His feet now, or of being made His footstool later. But if we are determined to do so now, then we will sit with Him on His throne later.

…Mary was found at His feet again when she came later and anointed Him with oil. To her, He was her Prophet, her Priest, and her King.

Here we are two thousand years after this event, and Mary is still being praised for her choice, as she will also be in the resurrection. She wept at Jesus’ feet when He came to their house after Lazarus died, and He comforted her. And Mary was found at His feet again when she came later and anointed Him with oil. To her, He was her Prophet, her Priest, and her King. Mary humbly and lavishly shared her love for Him. Shouldn’t we do the same before our Master?   

One Thing Needful

Jesus declared that Mary had chosen the best part. “One thing is needful…” (Luke 10:42), which was the one thing Mary did. She yielded herself to the absolute guidance of Christ. Someday we will be separated from all of our loved ones and belongings of this lifetime. But if we have this same love of Christ that Mary had, nothing can ever separate us from Him. We need to keep this same true love of His presence in our hearts today while we humbly sit at His feet. Then Christ will not be taken away from us, because He is the best part. Mary submitted to the guidance she received at Jesus’ feet. We need to have the same kind of submission to the divine guidance that we seek in the presence of the Lord whom we love, when we sit at His feet and listen to His precious eternal living Word. Be sure to pay diligent attention to this “one thing needful.” We should consider the need of the heart when we come into contact with the divine presence of God. And we should also resist dividing our attention, like Martha did, as we rush to and fro in our everyday lives.

The “one thing needful” was certainly meant regarding Mary’s choice to sit at Christ’s feet—not only to be near Him, but also to hear His eternal living Word going into her innermost being (her heart and soul). Yet how often are we like Martha—distressed about many things in this troubled world? Many of the things that we are so troubled about are needless, while the one thing which we so often neglect is the most needful.■

[Image credits: Featured image (when available) Harold Copping/public domain; flickr photo by Cea. shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license; bible revival/public domain; bible revival (cropped)/public domain; Oladimeji Ajegbi/pexels; (bottom half cropped)flickr photo by Cea. shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license; cdd20/pixabay; (top half cropped)flickr photo by Cea. shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license]