Sermon 22. The Good Part of Mary

"Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her." Luke x. 41, 42.

{318} EVERY word of Christ is good; it has its mission and its purpose, and does not fall to the ground [Note 1]. It cannot be that He should ever speak transitory words, who is Himself the very Word of God, uttering, at His good pleasure, the deep counsels and the holy will of Him who is invisible. Every word of Christ is good; and did we receive a record of His sayings even from ordinary men, yet we might be sure as to whatever was thus preserved, whether spoken to disciple or enemy, whether by way of warning, advice, rebuke, comfort, argument, or condemnation, that nothing had a merely occasional meaning, a partial scope and confined range, nothing regarded merely the moment, or the accident, or the audience; but all His sacred speeches, though clothed in a temporary garb, and serving an immediate end, and difficult, in consequence, to disengage {319} from what is temporary in them and immediate, yet all have their force in every age, abiding in the Church on earth, "enduring for ever in heaven," and running on into eternity. They are our rule, "holy, just, and good," "the lantern of our feet and the light of our paths," in this very day as fully and as intimately as when they were first pronounced.

And if this had been so, though mere human diligence had gathered up the crumbs from His table, much more sure are we of the value of what is recorded of Him, receiving it, as we do, not from man, but from God. The Holy Ghost, who came to glorify Christ, and inspired the Evangelists to write, did not trace out for us a barren Gospel; but doubtless, praised be His name, selected and saved for us those words which were to have an especial usefulness in after times, those words which might be the Church's law, in faith, conduct, and discipline; not a law written in tables of stone, but a law of faith and love, of the spirit, not of the letter; a law for willing hearts, which could bear to "live by every word," however faint and low, "which proceeded from His mouth," and who out of the seeds which the Heavenly Sower scattered, could foster into life a Paradise of Divine Truth. Let us then humbly try with this thought before us, and the help of His grace, to gain some benefit from the text.

Martha and Mary were the sisters of Lazarus, who was afterwards raised from the dead. All three lived together, but Martha was mistress of the house. St. Luke mentions, in a verse preceding the text, that Christ came to a certain village, "and a certain woman, {320} named Martha, received Him into her house." Being then at the head of a family, she had duties which necessarily engaged her time and thoughts. And on the present occasion she was especially busy, from a wish to do honour to her Lord. "Martha was cumbered about much serving." On the other hand, her sister was free from the necessity of worldly business, by being the younger. "She had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard His word." The same distinction, at once of duty and character, appears in the narrative of Lazarus' death and restoration, as contained in St. John's Gospel. "Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met Him; but Mary sat still in the house." [John xi. 20.] Afterwards Martha "went her way and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee." Again, in the beginning of the following chapter, "There they made Him a supper; and Martha served ... Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair." [John xii. 2, 3.] In these passages the same general difference between the sisters presents itself, though in a different respect;—Martha still directs and acts, while Mary is the retired and modest servant of Christ, who, at liberty from worldly duties, loves to sit at His feet and hear His voice, and silently honours Him with her best, without obtruding herself upon His sacred presence.

To return:—"Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to Him, and said, Lord, dost Thou not {321} care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her," in the words of the text, "Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken from her."

I shall draw two observations from this incident, and our Saviour's comment on it.

1. First, it would appear from hence, on His own authority, that there are two ways of serving Him—by active business, and by quiet adoration. Not, of course, that He speaks of those who call themselves His servants and are not; who counterfeit the one or the other manner of life; either those who are "choked with the cares of this world," or those who lie idle and useless as the hard way-side, and "bring no fruit to perfection." Nor, again, as if His words implied that any Christians were called to nothing but religious worship, or any to nothing but active employment. There are busy men and men of leisure, who have no part in Him; there are others, who are not without fault, as altogether sacrificing leisure to business, or business to leisure. But putting aside the thought of the untrue and of the extravagant, still after all there remain two classes of Christians;—those who are like Martha, those like Mary; and both of them glorify Him in their own line, whether of labour or of quiet, in either case proving themselves to be not their own, but bought with a price, set on obeying, and constant in obeying His will. If they labour, it is for His sake; and if they adore, it is still from love of Him. {322}

And further, these two classes of His disciples do not choose for themselves their course of service, but are allotted it by Him. Martha might be the elder, Mary the younger. I do not say that it is never left to a Christian to choose his own path, whether He will minister with the Angels or adore with the Seraphim; often it is: and well may he bless God if he has it in his power freely to choose that good portion which our Saviour especially praises. But, for the most part, each has his own place marked out for him, if he will take it, in the course of His providence; at least there can be no doubt who are intended for worldly cares. The necessity of getting a livelihood, the calls of a family, the duties of station and office, these are God's tokens, tracing out Martha's path for the many. Let me, then, dismiss the consideration of the many, and rather mention who they are who may be considered as called to the more favoured portion of Mary; and in doing so I shall more clearly show what that portion is.

First, I instance the Old, as is natural, whose season of business is past, and who seem to be thereby reminded to serve God by prayer and contemplation. Such was Anna; "she was of a great age ... and was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the Temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day." [Luke ii. 36, 37.] Here we see both the description of person called, and the occupation itself. Further, observe, it was the promises stored in Christ the Saviour, which were the object, towards which her service had respect. When He was brought into {323} the Temple, she "gave thanks to the Lord, and spake of Him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem." Again, the same description of person, certainly the same office, is set before us in the parable of the importunate widow. "He spake a parable unto them to this end, that we ought always to pray and not to faint." [Luke xviii. 1.] The widow said, "Avenge me of mine adversary." "And shall not God avenge His own elect," our Lord asks, "which cry day and night unto Him, though He bear long with them?" Add to these St. Paul's description: "Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusteth in God, and continueth in supplications and prayers night and day." [1 Tim. v. 5.]

Next those, who minister at the Altar, are included in Mary's portion. "Blessed is the man whom thou choosest and causest to approach unto Thee," says the Psalmist, "that he may dwell in Thy courts." [Ps. lxv. 4.] According to the Apostles' rule, the Deacons were to minister the worldly matters of the Church, the Evangelists were to go among the heathen, the Bishops were to govern; but the Elders were to remain, more or less, in the very bosom of the Lord's people, in the courts of his house, in the services of His worship, "executing the priest's office," as we read in the book of Acts [Acts xiii. 2.], offering up the Sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, teaching, catechising, but not busy or troubled with the world. I do not mean that these distinct offices were never united in one person, but that they were in themselves distinct, and that the tendency of the {324} Apostles' discipline was to separate off from the multitude of Christian Ministers certain who should serve God and the Church by giving thanks, and intercession.

And next, I may mention Children as in some respects partakers of Mary's portion. Till they go out into the world, whether into its trades or its professions, their school-time should be, in some sort, a contemplation of their Lord and Saviour. Doubtless they cannot enter into sacred subjects as steadily as is possible afterwards; they must not be unnaturally compelled to serve, and they are to be exercised in active habits of obedience, and in a needful discipline for the future; still, after all, we must not forget that He, who is the pattern of children as well as grown men, was, at twelve years old, found in His Father's House; and that afterwards, when He came thither before His passion, the children welcomed him with the words, "Hosanna to the Son of David," and fulfilled a prophecy, and gained His praise, in so doing.

Further, we are told, on St. Paul's authority (if that be necessary on so obvious a point), that Mary's portion is allotted, more or less, to the unmarried. I say more or less, for Martha herself, though unmarried, yet as mistress of a household, was in a measure an exception; and because servants of God, as St. Paul, may remain unmarried, not to labour less, but to labour more directly for the Lord. St. Paul's words, some have observed, almost appear to refer to the language used in the text, when read in the original Greek; which is the more likely, as St. Luke was an attendant on the Apostle, {325} and his Gospel seems to be cited elsewhere by him. As if he said, "The unmarried careth for the things of the Lord, so as to be holy both in body and in spirit. And this I speak for your own profit, that ye may sit at the Lord's feet without being cumbered."

And further still, there are vast numbers of Christians, in Mary's case, who are placed in various circumstances, and of whom no description can well be given; rich men having leisure, or active men during seasons of leisure, as when they leave their ordinary work for recreation's sake. Certainly our Lord meant that some or other of His servants should be ever worshipping Him in every place, and that not in their hearts merely, but with the ceremonial of devotion. St. Paul says, "I will therefore that men," even that sex whose especial punishment it was that they should "eat bread in the sweat of their face," "that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands," in common and public worship, "without wrath and doubting." [1 Tim. ii. 8.] And we find, accordingly, that even a Roman Centurion, Cornelius, had found time, amid his military duties, to serve God continually, before he became a Christian, and was rewarded with the knowledge of the Gospel in consequence. "He prayed to God alway," we are told, and his "prayers and alms came up for a memorial before God." [Acts x. 4.]

And last of all, in Mary's portion, doubtless, are included the souls of those who have lived and died in the faith and fear of Christ. Scripture tells us that they "rest from their labours;" [Rev. xiv. 13.] and in the same {326} sacred book, that their employment is prayer and praise. While God's servants below cry to Him day and night in every place; these "serve Him day and night in His temple" above, and from their resting-place beneath the altar intercede, with loud voice, for those holy interests which they have left behind them. "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost Thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" "We give Thee thanks, because Thou hast taken to Thee Thy great power, and hast reigned." [Rev. vi. 10; xi. 17.]

This then is the company of those who stand in Mary's lot;—the Aged and the Children—the Unmarried and the Priests of God—and the spirits of the just made perfect, all with one accord, like Moses on the Mount, lifting up holy hands to God, while their brethren fight, or meditating on the promises, or hearing their Saviour's teaching, or adorning and beautifying His worship.

2. Such being the two-fold character of Christian obedience, I observe, secondly, that Mary's portion is the better of the two. Our Lord does not expressly say so, but He clearly implies it: "Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her." If His words be taken literally, they might, indeed, even mean that Martha's heart was not right with Him, which, it is plain from other parts of the history, they do not mean. Therefore, what He intimated surely was, that Martha's {327} portion was full of snares, as being one of worldly labour, but that Mary could not easily go wrong in hers; that we may be busy in a wrong way, we cannot well adore Him except in a right one; that to serve God by prayer and praise continually, when we can do so consistently with other duties, is the pursuit of the "one thing needful," and emphatically "that good part which shall not be taken away from us."

It is impossible to read St. Paul's Epistles carefully without perceiving how faithfully they comment on this rule of our Lord's. Is it doubtful to any one, that they speak much and often of the duties of worship, meditation, thanksgiving, prayer, praise, and intercession; and in such a way as to lead the Christian, so far as other duties will allow him, to make them the ordinary employment of his life? not, indeed, to neglect his lawful calling, nor even to be content without some active efforts to do good, whether in the way of the education of the young, attendance on the sick and needy, pastoral occupation, study, or other toil, yet to devote himself to a life at Jesus' feet, and a continual hearing of His word? And is it not plainly a privilege, above other privileges, if we really love Him, to be called to this unearthly life? Consider the following passages, in addition to those already quoted, and see if they can possibly be completely realized in the life of the common run of Christians, though all, doubtless, must cultivate inwardly, and in due measure bring into outward act, the spirit which they enjoin. See if they be not illustrations of that more blessed portion with which Mary was favoured. "Continue in prayer, watching {328} in it with thanksgiving." [Col. iv. 2.] "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." [Col. iii. 16.] "Rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, in every thing give thanks, ... quench not the Spirit, despise not prophesyings." [1 Thess. v. 16-20.] "I will that men pray every where, lifting up holy hands." [1 Tim. ii. 8.] "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to each other in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always, for all things, unto God our Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." [Eph. v. 18-20.] "Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, ... taking the shield of faith, ... and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints." [Eph. vi. 14-18.] Thus St. Paul speaks: in like manner St. Peter, "casting all your care" (such as Martha's) "upon Him, for He is concerned for you." [1 Pet. v. 7.] "Abstain from wine, that you may pray;" [1 Pet. iv. 7.] and St. James, "Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms." [James v. 13.]

These are the injunctions of the Apostles; next, observe how they were fulfilled in the early Church. Before the Comforter came down, they "all (the {329} Apostles) continued," St. Paul's very word in the passages above cited, they persevered steadily, they endured, "with one accord, in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren." And so, after Pentecost; "They continuing,"—the same word—steadfastly enduring, "daily with one accord, in the Temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God." [Acts i. 14; ii. 46.] That early privilege, we know, was soon taken from them as a body. Persecution arose, and they were "scattered" [Acts viii. 1.] to and fro, over the earth. Henceforth Martha's portion befell them. They were full of labours, whether pleasant or painful;—pleasant, for they had to preach the Gospel over the earth—but painful as losing, not only earthly comforts, but, in some sort, spiritual quietness. They were separated from the Ordinances of Divine grace, as wanderers in a wilderness. Here and there, as they journeyed, they met a few of their brethren, "prophets and teachers, ministering to the Lord" at Antioch; or Philip's daughters, "virgins, which did prophesy" [Acts xiii. 2; xxi. 9.] at Cęsarea. They met for worship in secret, fearing their enemies; and in course of time, when the fire of persecution became fiercer, they fled to the deserts, and there set up houses for God's service. Thus Mary's portion was withheld from the Church for many years, while it laboured and suffered. St. Paul himself, that great Apostle, though he had his seasons of privilege, when he was caught up into the third heaven, and heard the hymns {330} of Angels, yet he, too, was a man of contention and toil. He fought for the Truth, and so laid the foundations of the Temple. He was "sent to preach, not to baptize." He was not allowed to build the House of God, for He was, in figure, like David, a "man of blood." He did but bring together into one the materials for the Sacred Building. The Order of the Ministry, the Succession of Apostles, the Services of Worship, the Rule of Discipline, all that is calm, beautiful, and soothing in our Holy Religion, was brought forth piecemeal, out of his writings, by his friends and fellow-disciples, in his own day, and in the time after him, as the state of the Church admitted.

Accordingly, as peace was in any measure enjoyed, so the building was carried on, here and there, at this time and that, in the cavern, or the desert, or the mountain, where God's stray servants lived; till a time of peace came, and by the end of three hundred years the work was accomplished. From that time onwards to the present day, Mary's lot has been offered to vast multitudes of Christians, if they could receive it. If they knew their blessedness, there are numbers now, in various ranks of society, who might enjoy the privilege of continual praise and prayer, and a seat at Jesus' feet. Doubtless they are, after all, but the few: for the great body of Christians have but the Lord's day, as a day of rest, and would be deserting their duty if they lived on other days as on it. But what is not granted to some, is granted to others, to serve God in His Temple, and be at rest. Who these favoured persons are, has already been said generally; {331} which is all that can be said in a matter in which every one must decide for himself, according to his best light and his own peculiar case. Yet surely, without attempting to pronounce upon individuals, so far at least we may say, that if there be an age when Mary's portion is altogether let alone and decried, that age is necessarily so far a stranger to the spirit of the Gospel.

Let me then, in conclusion, ask, for our edification, whether perchance this is not such an age? I say "perchance;" because in matters of this kind, men show their motives and principles less openly than in other matters, as being of a nature more immediately lying between themselves and God. Yet, taking account of this, at least is not this an age in which few persons are in a condition, from the very state of society, to "give themselves continually to prayer" and other direct religious services? Has not the desire of wealth so eaten into our hearts, that we think poverty the worst of ills, that we think the security of property the first of blessings, that we measure all things by mammon, that we not only labour for it ourselves, but so involve in our own evil earnestness all around us, that they cannot keep from the pursuit of it though they would? Does not the frame-work of society move forward on such a plan as to enlist into the service of the world all its members, almost whether they will or no? Would not a man be thought unaspiring and unproductive, who cared not to push forward in pursuit of that which Scripture calls "the root of all evil," the love of which it calls "covetousness which is idolatry," and the possession {332} of which it solemnly declares all but excludes a man from the kingdom of Heaven? Alas! can this be denied? And therefore, of course, the entire system of tranquil devotion, holy meditation, freedom from worldly cares, which our Saviour praises in the case of Mary, is cast aside, misunderstood, or rather missed altogether, as much as the glorious sunshine by a blind man, slandered and ridiculed as something contemptible and vain. Surely, no one, who is candid, can doubt, that, were Mary now living, did she choose on principle that state of life in which Christ found her, were she content to remain at Jesus' feet hearing His word and disengaged from this troublesome world, she would be blamed and pitied. Careless men would gaze strangely, and wise men compassionately, on such an one, as wasting her life, and choosing a melancholy, cheerless portion. Long ago was this the case. Even in holy Martha, zealous as she was and true-hearted, even in her instance we are reminded of the impatience and disdain with which those who are far different from her, the children of this world, regard such as dedicate themselves to God. Long ago, even in her, we seem to witness, as in type, the rash, unchristian way in which this age disparages devotional services. Do we never hear it said, that the daily Service of the Church is unnecessary? Is it never hinted that it is scarcely worth while to keep it up unless we get numbers to attend it, as if one single soul, if but one, were not precious enough for Christ's love and His Church's rearing? Is it never objected, that a partially-filled Church is a discouraging sight, as if, after all, our Lord {333} Jesus had chosen the many and not the few to be His true disciples? Is it never maintained, that a Christian minister is off his post unless he is for ever labouring for the heartless many, instead of ministering to the more religious few? Alas! there must be something wrong among us; when our defenders recommend the Church on the mere plea of its activity, its popularity, and its visible usefulness, and would scarcely scruple to give us up, had we not the many on our side! If our ground of boasting be, that rich men, and mighty men, and many men love us, it never can be a religious boast, and may be our condemnation. Christ made His feast for "the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind." It is the widow and the fatherless, the infirm, the helpless, the devoted, bound together in prayer, who are the strength of the Church. It is their prayers, be they many or few, the prayers of Mary and such as Mary, who are the safety, under Christ, of those who with Paul and Barnabas fight the Lord's battles. "It is but lost labour to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows," if prayers are discontinued. It is mere infatuation, if we think to resist the enemies who at this moment are at our doors, if our Churches remain shut, and we give up to prayer but a few minutes in the day.

Blessed indeed are they whom Christ calls near to Him to be His own peculiar attendants and familiar friends; more blessed if they obey and fulfil their calling! Blessed even if they are allowed to seize intervals of such service towards Him; but favoured and honoured beyond thought, if they can, without {334} breach of duty, put aside worldly things with full purpose of heart, renounce the pursuit of wealth, keep clear of family cares, and present themselves as a holy offering, without spot or blemish, to Him who died for them [Note 2]. These are they who "follow Him whithersoever He goeth," and to them He more especially addresses those lessons of faith and resignation which are recorded in His Gospel. "Take heed," He says, "and beware of covetousness; for man's life consisteth not in the overabundance of the things which he possesseth. Take no care for your life, what ye shall eat, neither for the body, what ye shall put on. Consider the lilies how they grow, they toil not, they spin not. Seek not ye what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink, neither be ye unsettled; for all these things do the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Sell that ye have, and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth. Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord, when He will return from the wedding. Blessed are those servants, whom the Lord, when He cometh, shall find watching. Verily {335} I say unto you, that He will gird Himself,"—He who on earth has let them sit at His feet hearing His word, or let them anoint His feet with ointment, kissing them, He in turn, as He did before His passion, by an inexpressible condescension, "will gird Himself; and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them. And if He shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. Be ye therefore ready also; for the Son of man cometh at an hour when ye think not." [Luke xii. 15-40.]

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1. Basil, Const. Mon. 1.
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2. The life here advocated is one of which Prayer, Praise, Intercession, and other devotional services, are made the object and business, in the same sense in which a certain profession or trade is the object and business of life to the mass of men: one in which devotion is the end to which everything else gives way. This explanation will answer the question, how much of each day it supposes set aside for devotion. Callings of this world do not necessarily occupy the whole, or half, or a third of our time, but they rule and dispose of the whole of it.
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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
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