Verse 42. "One thing is needful" - This is the end of the sentence, according to Bengel. "Now Mary hath chosen, &c.," begins a new one.
One single dish, the simplest and plainest possible, is such as best suits me and my disciples, whose meat and drink it is to do the will of our heavenly Father.
Mary hath chosen that good part] That is, of hearing my word, of which she shall not be deprived; it being at present of infinitely greater importance to attend to my teaching than to attend to any domestic concerns. While thou art busily employed in providing that portion of perishing food for perishing bodies, Mary has chosen that spiritual portion which endures for ever, and which shall not be taken away from her; therefore I cannot command her to leave her present employment, and go and help thee to bring forward a variety of matters, which are by no means necessary at this time. Our Lord both preached and practised the doctrine of self-denial; he and his disciples were contented with a little, and sumptuous entertainments are condemned by the spirit and design of his Gospel.
Multos morbos, multa fercula fecerunt. SENECA. "Many dishes, many diseases." Bishop PEARCE remarks that the word creia, needful, is used after the same manner for want of food in Mark ii. 25, where of David it is said, creian esce, he had need, when it means he was hungry. I believe the above to be the true meaning of these verses; but others have taken a somewhat different sense from them: especially when they suppose that by one thing needful our Lord means the salvation of the soul. To attend to this is undoubtedly the most necessary of all things, and should be the first, the grand concern of every human spirit; but in my opinion it is not the meaning of the words in the text. It is only prejudice from the common use of the words in this way that could make such an interpretation tolerable. KYPKE in loc. has several methods of interpreting this passage.
Many eminent commentators, both ancient and modern, consider the text in the same way I have done. But this is termed by some, "a frigid method of explaining the passage;" well, so let it be; but he that fears God will sacrifice every thing at the shrine of TRuth. I believe this alone to be the true meaning oś the place, and I dare not give it any other. Bengelius points the whole passage thus: Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful. Now, Mary hath chosen that good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.
THAT the salvation of the soul is the first and greatest of all human concerns, every man must acknowledge who feels that he has a soul; and in humility of mind to hear Jesus, is the only way of getting that acquaintance with the doctrine of salvation without which how can he be saved? While we fancy we are in no spiritual necessity, the things which concern salvation will not appear needful to us! A conviction that we are spiritually poor must precede our application for the true riches. The whole, says Christ, need not the physician, but those who are sick.
Martha has been blamed, by incautious people, as possessing a carnal, worldly spirit; and as Mary Magdalene has been made the chief of all prostitutes, so has Martha of all the worldly-minded. Through her affectionate respect for our Lord and his disciples, and through that alone, she erred. There is not the slightest intimation that she was either worldly- minded or careless about her soul; nor was she at this time improperly employed, only so far as the abundance of her affection led her to make a greater provision than was necessary on the occasion. Nor are our Lord's words to be understood as a reproof; they are a kind and tender expostulation, tending to vindicate the conduct of Mary. The utmost that can be said on the subject is, Martha was well employed, but Mary, on this occasion, better.
If we attend to the punctuation of the original text, the subject will appear more plain. I shall transcribe the text from Bengel's own edition, Stutgardiae, 1734, 12mo. ver. 41, 42-v. 41, apokriqeiv de eipen auth o ihsouv, marqa, marqa, merimnav kai turbazh peri polla? enov de esti creia. maria de thn agaqhn merida exelexato, htiv ouk afaireqhsetai apĘ authv. "Then Jesus answered her, Martha, Martha, thou art anxiously careful and disturbed about many things; but one thing is necessary. But Mary hath chosen that good portion which shall not be taken away from her." I have shown, in my notes, that Martha was making a greater provision for her guests than was needful; that it was in consequence of this that she required her sister's help; that Jesus tenderly reproved her for her unnecessary anxiety and superabundant provision, and asserted that but one thing, call it course or dish, was necessary on the occasion, yet she had provided many; and that this needless provision was the cause of the anxiety and extra labour. Then, taking occasion, from the circumstances of the case, to vindicate Mary's conduct, and to direct his loving reproof more pointedly at Martha's heart, he adds, Mary hath chosen a good portion; that is, she avails herself of the present opportunity to hear my teaching, and inform herself in those things which are essential to the salvation of the soul. I cannot, therefore, order her to leave my teaching, to serve in what I know to be an unnecessary service, however kindly designed: for it would be as unjust to deprive her of this bread of life, after which she so earnestly hungers, as to deprive thee, or thy guests, of that measure of common food necessary to sustain life. All earthly portions are perishing: "Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats, but God will destroy both it and then; but the work of the Lord abideth for ever;" her portion, therefore, shall not be taken away from her. This is my view of the whole subject; and all the terms in the original, not only countenance this meaning, but necessarily require it. The words, one thing is needful, on which we lay so much stress, are wanting in some of the most ancient MSS., and are omitted by some of the fathers, who quote all the rest of the passage: a plain proof that the meaning which we take out of them was not thought of in very ancient times; and in other MSS., versions, and fathers, there is an unusual variety of readings where even the thing, or something like it, is retained. Some have it thus; Martha, Martha, thou labourest much, and yet a little is sufficient, yea, one thing only. Others: And only one thing is required. Others: Thou art curious and embarrassed about many things, when that which is needful is very small.
Others: But here there need only a few things. Others: But a few things, or one only, is necessary. Now these are the readings of almost all the ancient versions; and we plainly perceive, by them, that what we term the one thing needful, is not understood by one of them as referring to the salvation of the soul, but to the provision THEN to be made. It would be easy to multiply authorities, but I spare both my own time and that of my reader. In short, I wonder how the present most exceptionable mode of interpretation ever obtained; as having no countenance in the text, ancient MSS. or versions, and as being false in itself; for even Christ himself could not say, that sitting at his feet, and hearing his word, was the ONE thing NEEDFUL. Repentance, faith, prayer, obedience, and a thousand other things are necessary to our salvation, besides merely hearing the doctrines of Christ, even with the humblest heart.