Guest post by Chad Ramsey.
Mary chose the better portion (τὴν ἀγαθὴν μερίδα -- it can be translated several ways) of what was available in that setting. Martha was concerned with readying physical amenities, while Jesus was presenting life-giving spiritual food, and she went so far as to ask Jesus to tell Mary to stop and come and help!
Thoreau, in the mid-19th century, was living in the midst of a very nasty turn of events. Marx and Engels had published their pamphlet _Manifesto of the Communist Party_ just a few years earlier, and Darwin would publish his _Origin of Species_ a few years later. There was reason to be distracted from ordinary life by the news of the day, although then as now, the news was not always to be believed. A terrible godlessness was emerging that has only continued to grow since then. It is closely related to the news of this day, which must not be blindly trusted -- there is much deception to be found in its reporting, and this is very intentional.
I spend much of my available time online, interacting with people that see what is happening in the world and where it is leading, but can't see why it is happening. They need "the words of eternal life", but they can't accept them. They cannot see that portion. Instead, they are trying to find ways to stop the powers -- human and spiritual -- that are bringing disaster upon us.
This is more than a mere distraction, especially given the possibilities of destruction that "scientific progress" offers, but there is no hope in going up against the spiritual powers of darkness and their human agents on our own. Yet these well-intentioned people choose this path of self-reliance over the better portion of God's grace. They as a rule have rejected the false hope of Marx-Engels, but have still fallen for the deception of Darwin, that we are alone here, and that it is up to us to solve these problems.
Significant portions of the church have been drawn into this struggle, not claiming that we are alone but believing that it has been given to us to do this. Personally, I believe that what has been given to us is the gospel and the Great Commission. But it is necessary to be aware of world events, and to understand the extreme level of deception found in the present time. Martha lacked the awareness that pointed to the better choice.
The problem is sin, and it is our sin. We can't solve it but Jesus already has. Our evil rulers are a huge distraction and, I would say, a response to our corporate sin. We too must continue to choose the better portion.