188. Choosing the Better Part (Luke 10:38-42)

“From the top of a hill the rain flows down to the valley. Just as more water collects at the bottom of the hill, so Mary, sitting in a low place at the feet of Jesus, listening to His words, receives more than Martha, standing and serving the temporal needs of her Master. Mary, loving Jesus, the one thing needed, is in port. Martha, occupying herself about many things, is still at sea.” – St. Augustine

Luke 10:38-42: In the course of their journey he came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered: ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said, ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’

Christ the Lord  If Christ truly is the one Lord of life and history, the one Savior, the one Way, Truth, and Life (and he is), then it is certain that “only one” thing is needed for a fulfilling, meaningful, and fruitful life: to stay as close to him as possible at all times. When we address Christ from our hearts as Lord, we acknowledge our conviction that he truly is our one thing necessary, and he will be as pleased with us for doing so as he was with Mary.

The Lord already is the one thing needed. Our task is to choose to shape our lives accordingly. Jesus doesn’t congratulate Mary because she won the spiritual lottery or had received a particularly beautiful soul from God. He praises her because she has “chosen the better part.” She chooses it. She chooses to submit to the Lord, to let him be for her what he in truth is for everyone – that one needed thing.

Once again, we are confronted with this amazing truth about Christ’s Kingship: he offers the benefits of his rule to all people, but he leaves each person supremely free to accept or reject them. And the offer is not a one-time affair. Martha had chosen to busy herself with her own plans on this occasion, but you can bet she adjusted her behavior the next time the Lord came around. Mary had chosen to adore the Lord this time, but she would still be free to make the same or a different choice the next time. Each and every time we choose to give Christ and his will priority in our lives, we are pleasing him and extending the borders of his Kingdom in our lives. And every time we bring his message to others, we give them a chance to do the same.

Christ the Teacher  We shouldn’t berate Martha too much – she also is a saint, and she was also much loved by the Lord. But she needed to learn a lesson. She needed to learn that what we do for Christ has to flow out of what we are for him – his true and devoted friends. It is easy to overload our agenda with so many activities and commitments – good and beneficial as they may be – that we lose sight of our goal: to know, love, and imitate Christ more each day. Only that will give meaning to our lives; only that will equip us to help others find meaning; only that will fill us with the joy we long for. If we are separated from the vine, we cannot bear fruit (cf. John 15:5), but if we seek first the Kingdom, everything else will fall into place (cf. Matthew 6:33).

The crucial sign that we may be following Martha’s footsteps a little too closely is a waning life of prayer. When we skimp on our prayer life, on that precious time that we spend, as Mary did, “at the Lord’s feet listening to him speaking,” we need to stop and check our spiritual vital signs. Maybe we have allowed ourselves to become so “distracted with all the serving” that we have forgotten why we should be serving in the first place.


Christ the Friend Christ was glad to be served, but he was even gladder to be loved. He yearns for our love. When we come before him at the final judgment, he will be less interested in our résumé of achievements than in the love with which we achieved them. He was happy that Mary wanted to listen to him, wanted to sit beside him and spend time with him. That is why he became man in the first place – to make himself available, to offer his friendship. This desire was so strong that he invented a way to extend his real presence to all times and places through the sacrament of the Eucharist. In every tabernacle throughout the world he is available 24/7, just for us, just because he loves us.

Christ in My Life I want to choose the better part every day – every moment of every day. I believe in you completely; I want to live wholly for you. Whose kingdom could I possibly prefer? My own? Save me from that! Someone else’s? But who is as wise as you, who is as powerful as you? Who is as loving as you? Thy Kingdom come, Lord, thy will be done…

I want to build your Kingdom, fulfill my apostolate, and win souls over to your friendship. I want to do so much for you! But I know that my heart is not yet completely pure. The infection of egoism is still there, albeit on the wane because of your grace. So keep me humble, Lord. Keep me focused on you and your Kingdom – not on myself and my achievements…

Thank you for staying with me in the Eucharist. Now I always have a chance to sit at your feet and listen to your words and your heartbeats. I need that. I need a real place, a real presence. Thank you, Lord. Never let me take this great gift for granted. With the love of your heart, inflame my heart…

PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.


Art: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (Alternative title: Christ with Martha and Maria), Henryk Siemiradzski (Semiradsky), 1886, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. His most recent books are “Spring Meditations”, “Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength”, and “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage