St Luke 10:38-42

Chapter 10 of St Luke concludes with the famous story of Martha and Mary:

38 Factum est autem, dum irent, et ipse intravit in quoddam castellum: et mulier quædam, Martha nomine, excepit illum in domum suam, 39 et huic erat soror nomine Maria, quæ etiam sedens secus pedes Domini, audiebat verbum illius. 40 Martha autem satagebat circa frequens ministerium: quæ stetit, et ait: Domine, non est tibi curæ quod soror mea reliquit me solam ministrare? dic ergo illi ut me adjuvet. 41 Et respondens dixit illi Dominus: Martha, Martha, sollicita es, et turbaris erga plurima, 42 porro unum est necessarium. Maria optimam partem elegit, quæ non auferetur ab ea.

[38] Now it came to pass as they went, that he entered into a certain town: and a certain woman named Martha, received him into her house. [39] And she had a sister called Mary, who sitting also at the Lord' s feet, heard his word. [40] But Martha was busy about much serving. Who stood and said: Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me alone to serve? speak to her therefore, that she help me.
[41] And the Lord answering, said to her: Martha, Martha, thou art careful, and art troubled about many things: [42] But one thing is necessary. Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her.

Commentary (de Lapide)

...Which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard His word. The word “also” shows that at the very time when Mary might have been assisting her sister in her household cares, she was sitting at Jesus feet showing her diligence and zeal in hearing, and the great reverence which she had for Christ.

As by sitting at Jesus’ feet she had made the better choice, says S. Augustine, so she received the greater benefit. For water collects in the low-lying valleys, but flows down the acclivities of the hills.
And heard His word. Christ here teaches His disciples how they ought to behave in the houses of those who receive them, for, says S. Chrysostom (S. Cyril in the Catena), “They should not remain idle, but rather fill the minds of those who receive them with heavenly doctrine.” That no time may be without fruit, but that they may everywhere sow the seeds of religion, and excite men to virtue and to the love of God. Thus did Peter Faber, the first companion of S. Ignatius Loyola, who spent his whole life in journeying amongst his fellowmen, and in his will left us this salutary advice, that when we enter a house we should recite the hours, or take part in religious discourses, to show the reality of our profession. For thus a stop is put to improper conversation, and religion is the gainer. Thus he more than once by his discourse moved those whom he was entertaining to repentance, and received from them confession of their sins. Thus also did S. Francis Xavier, who sailed throughout the East, and won converts as much by his life as by his preaching.

Ver. 40.—But Martha was cumbered with much serving, πεζιεσπα̃το πεζί πολλὴν διακονίαν, was drawn aside and distracted, i.e. was anxious that nothing should be wanting for the entertainment of such a guest. Hence the Arabic, Martha was diligently serving to the utmost of her power.
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. Came to Him: Greek, ε̉πιστα̃σα, standing by Him.
Dost Thou not care? Does not it displease you? Arabic.

Martha spoke thus partly from her wish that all things should be properly prepared for Christ, partly from her knowledge of His consideration and kindness. Lord, my sister sees me overwhelmed with care because of my desire to honour Thee, and yet does nothing to assist me. Out of kindness to me, bid her, therefore, share my labour. She will obey Thy word, but will not, I know, listen to my request.

Ver. 41.—And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. The repetition of her name, says S. Augustine, “is a sign of affection, or perhaps of a desire to arrest her attention more particularly to what He was about to say. For she was so entirely engrossed by her household cares, that His words might have been unheeded had she not been specially addressed by name.”  S. Augustine adds, “Mary made no reply, because she preferred to commit her cause to her judge, and knew that Christ would, as He was wont, stand by her and support her. Hence Christ, who was appealed to as judge, became her Advocate.” Interlinear Gloss.
Thou art too anxious, Martha, and therefore thou are troubled. Thou desirest to prepare many things for me, whereas I need but few. Emmanuel Sa and all the others translate τυζβάζή, thou art confused, but the better rendering is, thou art troubled. For those who are anxious about many things experience much perturbation of mind—hence too much care and anxiety is the sign of excessive love or fear, and so they who love honour or riches, or any other thing too much, fear lest they may lose what they love, and become perturbed and anxious.

Ver. 42.—But one thing is needful. The Greek has ε̉νὸς δέ ε̉στιν χζεία; and this “one thing” Christ places in opposition to the “many things” about which Martha was troubled.

What then is this one thing which is needful? Luther, Bullinger, Melancthon, and other like innovators answer, Faith, i.e. to hear the Gospel and to believe in it. For this is what the Magdalene did. Hence they think that faith only is necessary for salvation. Only believe, they say, that you are saved through the merits of Christ, and you will assuredly obtain your salvation. But such a faith is rash and delusive. For blasphemers and evildoers might possess it. Hence, in addition to faith, hope, charity, and good works are necessary for salvation, as is clear from S. Matt xix. 17, 1 Cor. xiii., and Holy Scripture generally, and from the example of the Magdalene herself, who not only heard, but was obedient to the word of the Lord. See S. Luke vii. 43.

The truer and more orthodox interpretation seems to be that of those who understand by “one thing” one kind of food. Thou art anxious, Martha, to place before me many dishes, but to no purpose, for I require but one. I want not a rich banquet, but only ordinary food, for I am temperate, and a lover of humble fare. I do not blame, but praise your desire to do Me honour, yet I warn you not to be over careful for the things of this life, nor to call your sister away from hearing My words. So Theophylact, S. Gregory, and others.

Hear also S. Basil. “There is need of few things, or rather of but one. Of few things as far as preparations are concerned, but of one object for the supply of our need;” and Titus, “We came not hither to fill ourselves with superfluous food, for nature is content with little.” Similarly Theophylact says, “One thing is needful: we must eat something, but we need not varieties of food,” i.e. according to the Arabic version, “That which is necessary for us we can easily obtain.”

2. But in a higher sense, the one thing needful is the love of God, and the desire of salvation. This was the good part which Mary had chosen; and therefore, explaining the one thing needful, Christ goes on to say, “Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her.”
The meaning is, therefore, this: Thou, Martha, art troubled about many things, but I exhort thee to devote thyself to one thing alone, to seek to please God, and Him only, in every action of thy life, and to do everything out of love towards Him. So, not attempting that which thou art unable to perform, thou wilt be enabled to serve God quietly and without fear, and to accomplish whatsoever He would have thee to do. Bede, Euthymius, and others.

Hence S. Augustine and S. Gregory say, “This one thing is the end and chief good of men, on which their minds should be ever fixed;” and Cassian says, “The one thing needful is a mind which, regardless of all else, is fixed on God alone, and rejoices in the contemplation of His perfections.” For although divine contemplation is not necessary for salvation it is necessary for the perfection of those who are united to God by a holy life. So the Psalmist says, Ps. xxvii 4, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” And S. Paul, Phil. iii. 13, 14, “One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” And again, Esther xiv. 18, “Thine handmaid hath never rejoiced since I was brought hither, unto this day, but in thee, 0 Lord, the God of Abraham.“—Douay. For Christ saith, S. John xvii. 3, “This is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.”
Wherefore, when S. Ægidius, a very holy man, one of the first followers of S. Francis, was asked the way to holiness and perfection, he answered, “Una uni.” Let your whole mind be entirely given up to God, and one with Him. For unity is contrary to division, and God is one. Wherefore let him who seeks God return to unity with Him, for God must be sought by conformity of will, and by the union of the intellect and affections. S. Bernard (serm. 7 in Cant.)

Hence S. Augustine (lib. ii, 18 De Ordine.) proves by induction that all things tend to one, because, as he shows, “Unity or singleness is the first fruit of God, who is the first essential and uncreated unity, the origin and fount of all other unities;” and in a later chapter he dwells upon the beauty of unity.
In short, the one thing needful is God. All other things contingent and immaterial, created by the good pleasure of God out of nothing; and as, to quote the proverb, he who pursues two hares catches neither, so he who strives to please God and the world fails to attain either object.

Figuratively, this “one thing” is to be acquired by meditation and prayer, for thus men are brought into communion with God. Hence he who would lead a religious life should seek this one thing only, so as to be thereby drawn into union with the Almighty.  S. Dionysius and Climacus. “A monk is one who always has his soul lifted up to God; one who prays at all times, at all places, and on all occasions;” and S. Chrysostom says, “Prayer is the heart and soul of a perfect and religious life;” and S. Bonaventura (De perfectione vitæ, chap. 5), declares that “If any one who has taken the vows of a religious life omits frequent prayer, his soul is dead within him, or in other words he is like a body without a soul, having the outward form and religion, but lacking its inward grace.” And again, “Without abundant prayer religion becomes languid and weak. Why, unhappy spirit, dost thou wander through many places, seeking rest and finding none? Set thy affections on Him, of whom are all things, and in Him thou wilt rest happy and content. For He will satisfy thee with good things, and give thee to drink out of His pleasures as out of a river.”

Hear also what Epictetus says to Arrian: “All first principles must, as if the world were turned upside down, return to one—all beauty, truth, and everything which is good, to one origin—everything divine to one God, all unity to the Triune.” For unity, the beginning of things, goodness, truth and God are the same, and therefore one. Hence we read, Cant. ii. 16, “My beloved to me, and I to Him,” for the Bride makes entire surrender of herself to her spouse; and so the saints desire to put off the flesh, that their souls may be united with God. So S. Paul was willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord (2 Cor. v. 8); and Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word;” and the Psalmist, “Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with Mesech.” Ps. cxx. 5.

S. Basil speaks of some who abhorred this life, as if it were a dark prison, and with difficulty restrained their desire (ὸζγαι̃ς) for release, because their hearts were filled with the love of God, and eager to gaze upon the divine perfections: they longed for the time when they might for ever contemplate the loving kindness of the Lord.

So this blessed rest is to the wise a time of working, and the mind which has once been absorbed in the contemplation of the divinity, sustains itself on God and is sustained by Him.
Wherefore David says, Ps. xlii. 2, “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?”

Symbolically, unity is the beginning and end of all numbers, for every number commences and ends in it—whilst it is independent and indivisible.

So God is the beginning and ending of all things, the Alpha and Omega (Rev. xxi. 6), who shutteth and openeth all things, before whom and after whom there is nothing. Who was from all eternity, through whom and by whom all things exist. Hence Plato says, “All things spring from the divine unity, and retain the trace of their origin, by means of which they are recalled to this unity, and perfected in it;” and considers unity to be God, in whom all things exist as branches from the root.

Again, where sin is there is division; but where virtue, there oneness—where love, there unity. Therefore let him who seeks after virtue love one thing, and seek also for unity. For Christ, the teacher of unity, wills to join us together in one Church and unite us to Himself.

For unity imparts holiness to the mind, health to the body, peace and concord to countries and households, in short, all the virtue and strength of a nation arises out of its oneness with itself. But division is the cause of discord, schism, war, and countless ills. Hence Plato (De Repub. lib. v.) says, The worst evil which can befall a state is division, and its highest good subjection, if subjection makes it again one.

Hence S. Augustine says of the heavenly life, “There will be there no grudging because of unequal love, for one love will reign supreme in all;” and S. Gregory, “So great a love there unites all, that each rejoices that another rather than himself has received a blessing.” Life therefore reigns in love, i.e. in union; but death in hatred, i.e. in division.

Mary hath chosen that good part. The Syriac and Arabic add “to herself”—hath taken to herself. The Greek word α̉γαθὴν implies excellence, hence the Vulgate gives optimam. For Christ commends the one sister more than the other. “Thou, Martha, hast chosen well, but Mary better. Thou hast not chosen a bad part, but she a better.”  S. Augustine. “Behold, Martha is not blamed, but Mary is praised.” Bede. And again, S. Augustine (serm. 27 De Verbis Domini), “Can we imagine that Martha was blamed for being intent on hospitable cares? How could she be rightly blamed for rejoicing over such a guest?” So also Ambrose and Cassian (Collat. i., chap. 8).

Theophylact explains, “By the action of the one, the body is nourished; by the action of the other the soul receives life.” And Euthymius, “It is good to be hospitable, but it is better to hear the word of God, for the one is of the body, the other of the spirit.”

S. Augustine gives another figurative interpretation: “Why was Mary’s the better part? Because she preferred the one thing to many. Many things were created, but there was but one Creator, and if the things created were very good, how excellent must He be who created them.”

There are three persons in the Godhead, and these three are one, so the nearer you approach to perfect unity, the higher you draw to God; and Christ Himself prays the Father that His disciples “may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us.” And again, “The glory which thou gavest Me have I given them; that they may be one, even as We are one.” See S. John xvii. 21 et seq.

Hence to choose the good part, is to give up all care of earthly things, and to devote oneself entirely to the service of God.

Hear Richard de S. Victor on Cant. viii: “Mary chose the better part, because she saw that the contemplation and the love of God included all things; but her sister was occupied about things which, though many, are limited to this world: hence by comparison Martha was troubled about few things. But the one thing necessary, and to be preferred before all, is to love God with the whole heart, and to show love and charity to all men.” And Suarez (De Oratione Mentali) says, “Mary made the better choice, because mental prayer brings about blessedness in this life, because it is the commencement of that beatific vision which will be the happiness of the saints in heaven.”

Hence the joy of Magdalene was real and lasting. So S. Bernard says, “It is impossible to enjoy here on earth a sweet and happy life, since the earth itself is subject to constant change; but there is a joy lasting in its happiness, which arises out of a pure conscience. For the mind which is purified from earthly affections and entirely fixed on the contemplation of heavenly things, fears no threatenings, knows no fear, conceives no false hopes, but, void of all offence, rests in perfect peace.” Hugo Victorinus accounts for this perfect peace thus: “A conscience is quiet and void of offence when it is kindly affectioned to all, and bears ill-will to none: when it regards a friend with kindness, an enemy with patience, and seeks to do good, if possible, to all men.”

Allusion is here made, says Maldonatus, to the manner in which the ancients divided an inheritance. It was customary for the eldest son to divide the property into as many parts as might be requisite, and for his brothers to have the first choice, so as to ensure an equal division. Seneca (lib. vi., Declamatio 3).
Thus Christ was the inheritance, which Martha as the elder sister divided into two parts, to hear Christ and to serve Him. Mary the younger chose the better part, i.e. to hear the words of Christ, for the Hebrew חלק, chelec, i.e. part, in Scripture signifies the lot of one’s inheritance. Thus, “The Lord is my portion,” Lam. iii. 4. See also Psalm xvi. 5.

But the active and the contemplative life combined tend to perfection, for the one controls and directs the other. So Christ taught the people by day, but was wont to spend whole nights in prayer, and following his example thus did also the Baptist and the Apostles.

Which shall not he taken away from her. Because to hear, like Mary, the word of God, and to meditate thereon, is spiritual food which will support she soul until it comes to appear in the eternal presence; but to minister, as Martha, is to choose that part which endures but for this present life.  S. Augustine and others. Hence S. Gregory. “The part which Mary chose will never be taken away from her, because a contemplative life is unlike an active life, its joys gain strength from death.”

Hear also S. Augustine: “That which thou hast chosen, Martha, will be taken from thee, that something better may be given. For in place of labour thou shalt have rest. Thou hast not yet reached thy journey’s end, but thy sister is in the haven.” And a little before he says, “Martha was troubled how she might feed the Lord, Mary anxious to be fed by Him.” And again, “Carefulness for many things passes away, but the love of one thing lasts for ever.” And Laurentius Justinianus says, “An active life is an anxious one, but a life of contemplation possesses a lasting joy. The one obtains a kingdom, while the other perceives only. In the one the world is despised, in the other God will be manifest, for ‘My people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.’” Isaiah xxxii. 18.

Again S. Gregory writes, “The active life ends with this world for in the next who can give bread to the hungry where there is no hunger—or drink to the thirsty where there is no thirst. But the contemplative life begins here on earth, to be perfected in heaven; for the fire of divine love which is kindled here, burns brighter in the presence of God, who is its object.”

See also Cassian, who says amongst other things, “In the future world all will pass from the many distractions of life and from actual work, to be absorbed in the love of God and in the contemplation of the Deity.”

Observe, as against Calvin, that Martha is the type of the active life, and that Mary, sitting silently at Jesus’ feet, insensible to what was going on around because of her rapt attention to the words of Christ, a type of the contemplative. S. Bernard and others.

But what is contemplation?  S. Augustine (or whoever else may be the author of the treatise De Spiritu et Animo) answers, “It is the joyful admiration of a manifest truth.” But S. Bernard defines contemplation as “the uplifting of the mind to God, whereby we gain a foretaste of the joys of happiness eternal.” Others again say, “It is the sure intuition of the soul or its undoubted apprehension of the truth.” But Gerson, following Hugo says, “It is to be dead to all carnal desires, and to taste how sweet the Lord is. As David rejoiced in the living God (Ps. lxxxiv. 9), and declared God to be his portion for ever.” Ps. lxxiii. 25.

S. Gregory also (hom. 14 in Ezek.) thus describes the duties of each kind of life:—“The active life consists in giving bread to the hungry, in teaching the ignorant, reclaiming those who are in error, caring for the sick, and in ministering to the necessities of all, specially to the necessities of those committed to our trust. But he who would lead a life of contemplation must ever keep in mind the love of God and of his neighbour, and refraining from acting on this love, look with the longing expectation of a heart wholly fixed on heaven for the glory which shall be revealed.”

Hence S. Thomas says, “The contemplative life, although mainly intellectual, originates in the affections, inasmuch as it springs out of the love of God, and the end of such a life is like the beginning, for delight at the sight of that which we love increases our love for it.”

The contemplative life therefore causes a man to rise superior to the world, its trials and temptations, and to count all things as valueless in comparison with God, and gives perfect peace, because, S. Bernard says, “God wrapt all things in a holy calm, and to gaze on Him is to be at rest.” But this life of contemplation is preceded by an active life of mortification and self-denial, for as the fruit follows after the flower, so from a monk does a man become a hermit. Therefore S. Basil and other ascetics say that the monastic life is a fitting preparation for that life of contemplation to which the hermits are devoted.

And so the Church has rightly appointed this portion of scripture to be read on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin because she rendered to Christ the service both of Martha and of Mary, and chose that good part, of which she will never be deprived.

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