Does this pericope follow historically after verses 25-37? That question, in part, depends on whether one considers Luke 9:51 to 19:27 as a travel-account. Those who assume that it is a travel-account admit that Jesus was still in Galilee or Perea but made a trip south to Bethany at this point. Those who assume it is not a travel-account maintain that there is no historical connection between the preceding and this account. Some have tried to solve the situation by saying that at first Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived in Galilee and later moved to Bethany.
These notes assume that this account took place in Bethany, east of Jerusalem about two miles, and that it took place about four months before Jesus' crucifixion, between the Feast of Tabernacles and the Feast of Dedication, between verses 21 and 22 of John 10, whether or not this pericope follows Luke 10:37 immediately. In other words, the accounts of this family recorded in John 11 and 12 follow this account by about four months.
Does this indicate a true travel-account from Galilee to Jerusalem? Authorities differ. Who were his "disciples?" Some think that the group included the seventy. Lenski thinks that it was the disciples who went on to Jerusalem but that Jesus alone stopped at Bethany.
By the way, the description of the temperament of Martha and Mary here and in John 11:1ff and 12:2ff is remarkably similar. The Holy Spirit caused both Luke and John to record true history, down to the very personalities of people.
The familiarity with which Martha and Mary treated Jesus clearly indicates that He frequently visited their house. Look at John 11:5.
Both women sat at Jesus' feet, both welcomed Him. Though the account is about Martha and Mary, our attention is riveted on the Lord and His Word.
"What He said," must mean primarily Gospel, the only thing which drives cares away. More on this later.
"But" makes the contrast to Mary. "Distracted" means "torn this way and that." It wasn't just "serving," but "much serving."
"You care, don't you, that my sister has left me alone to do the serving?" She's expecting Him to agree and release Mary from sitting there to help Martha. Martha is finding fault not only with her sister but with Jesus as well. "Mary has been leaving me to do the serving all by myself."
The answer is not what Martha expected. The doubling of "Martha" is obviously an indication of love. Parents do this when they wish to correct a child. "Worried" denotes her inner worries, "upset" denotes her outer and apparent hyperactivity.
Note the contrast between "many" and "one."
Here we have a textual problem. There are six possible readings of which only two are worth considering:
NIV translates: "Only one thing is needed." AAT is similar: "But there's only one thing you need." While NASB has: "But only a few things are necessary, really only one." Which of these is original?
Some commentators argue that, originally, the textual reading meant: "You've fussed over too many dishes. One would have been sufficient." This was later "spiritualized" by scribes and was changed to the variant.
Others argue that the variant (spiritual) was original and was "materialized" into the reading of the text. But if the text originally referred to the number of dishes, wouldn't 42b almost of necessity mean that Mary has chose the "good dish"?
The point we are making is that the readings are essentially the same. "But, of (only) one (thing) there is need."
Fahling: This is absolute truth. For this there is no substitute. Otherwise it would not be the "one thing needful."
Lenski: What this "one thing" is Jesus does not say outright, but His words and the situation furnished the answer.
When we try to serve Jesus without realizing that He must ever serve us first, Matthew 20:28, we end up as Martha and not as Mary. When we try to serve Jesus but are not always first seeking His Kingdom and His Righteousness, Matthew 6:33, then we begin to worry and fret about the very things which He will add without worry on our part.
Even when we are doing that which is pleasing to Him but are boasting in that rather than boasting and rejoicing that our names are written in heaven, Luke 10:17-20, we are wrong. Lenski aptly notes that 1 Corinthians 7:35 tells us that we are to attend upon the Lord "without distraction." The Greek word reminds us of the verb which describes Martha in verse 40.
When Jesus was tempted by Satan to turn the loaves into bread, He told Satan: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every Word which proceeds out of the mouth of God." Matthew 4:4. And He was referring to Himself. He does not mean that it is wrong to eat. That is necessary, and it is God-pleasing. But in acquiring food and when eating it we must always remember that all gifts, be they spiritual or material, come to us from God through His Word and that no service of ours should ever get in the way of our relationship to Him.
What is the "part," the "more beneficial part?" Plainly "hearing His Word" (verse 39) whether one is in church or cultivating corn.
The last four words of this verse are a marvelous promise: "Which (more beneficial part) shall not be taken from her."
Stoeckhardt: Everything earthly vanishes. The Word of the Lord remains eternally, and he who rightly hears and learns the Word and receives it, will never die, but have eternal life.
Arndt: The Word is presented as a means of grace through which God accomplishes His gracious work in us.
Fahling: In this instance well-meaning Martha permitted something to keep her from Jesus. While we must place everything at the disposal of Jesus and His Word, there is nothing that should separate us from Jesus, be it time, money, or service.
The preacher should not fail to read and study hymn #366 in The Lutheran Hymnal (#277 in Lutheran Worship) carefully when he preaches on this text. And it should be sung by our congregations frequently. All of us are guilty of worry and distraction. Even in our most sacred, God-pleasing duties we are often steeped in gloom, worry, and doubt. We ought be hearing Him say: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name. You are mine." Isaiah 43:1.