One Thing is Needful

Edward Griffin, 1770-1837

"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." Luke 10:41-42

There was a pious family at Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, consisting of Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. This was that Lazarus who was afterwards raised from the dead and this was that Mary who anointed her Lord with ointment and wiped His feet with the hair of her head.

On a certain day Jesus came to Bethany and Martha, with affectionate hospitality, "received him into her house." While she was thus employed in providing Him with a meal, the attention of her more spiritual and contemplative sister was wholly engrossed by His heavenly instructions.

It was the custom of that day for disciples to sit at the feet of their masters while listening to their discourses. This did Mary on the present occasion. Martha, who had committed one error by excessive anxiety to prepare a meal for her celestial Guest added another by complaining of her sister because she lingered still at His feet. This was more commendable in Mary, than any excessive care about the offices of hospitality. "But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to" Jesus, and with a bluntness surprising to a modern ear, "said, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore to help me." And Jesus answered and said unto her, with a gentle but serious reproof, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

It is not uncommon for people of an active and worldly spirit, to censure Christians for devoting so much time to religion. When the latter occasionally neglect their worldly business to attend to devotion or to the interests of the Redeemer's kingdom the worldly charge them with uselessness, and plead against them the sacred relations of wife and children. But what relative duties are more pressing than was that of hospitality to the person of Jesus? So Martha reasoned and she blamed Mary for a seeming neglect of this.

But Jesus protected her. He would not blunt those holy desires which He had excited, nor discourage that eager attention to divine things which cast every worldly object into the shadows. Some fanatics have indeed made all religion to consist in meditation, to the exclusion of every active duty. They have retired to convents and deserts where they have dragged out a useless life and were as good as buried before they were dead. This is the opposite extreme.

Martha thought it highly necessary to provide a meal for her heavenly Guest. In her opinion, anything could be postponed rather than this. And so would the greater part of sincere people have thought. Yet Christ told her that there was another thing far more necessary; that however important her hospitality might be, another thing was "needful." This was the care of the soul and an interest in the Savior.

This is the one thing needful for an immortal being. There is nothing else which a man may not do without. He may do without the praise of men, without the love and respect of his acquaintances, and even without a good reputation provided his conscience does not upbraid him. These things are indeed valuable, and much of the happiness of life depends on the love and confidence of the wise and good. But a man may do without these. He may make a shift to survive his character, to live under the contempt and derision of the world, separated from human society. Even in such a seclusion a good conscience and the comforts of religion would render life tolerable and even happy. But though it were otherwise, yet threescore years and ten, and probably a much shorter space, would put an end to his mortification and introduce him into everlasting society and honor.

A man may do without the gratification of the senses, and the pleasures of imagination. These delights are by no means trifling. They constitute all the physical happiness derived from the beauties of nature and art, and from the whole furniture of the globe. But a man may do without these.

Blindness may convert the page of nature into a universal blank; he may be rendered deaf to the harmony of music and to the sweeter tones of human conversation; he may be dead to every fragrance that floats in the breeze, and insensible to every pleasure of taste and of touch; he may no longer find a mystic charm thrown around him by the spell of imagination. He may be wholly cut off from society, and may have no bodily sensation but that of pain. Could the outward condition of man be worse? Yet thus excluded from all connection with the world without his soul may enjoy, in a sort of separate state, much of the happiness of Heaven.

But if it were otherwise, yet the termination of his sufferings is at hand. A few years will translate him from a world of darkness, solitude, and suffering into eternal light and vision and blessedness.

A man may do without wealth, the great object which makes the universal race run mad. Poverty may do its worst upon him. And what can it do? It may make him hungry and cold and wet and friendless but it cannot take from him the light of God's countenance.

He may waste his solitary days in a prison; but there, like Paul and Silas, he may shout and sing for joy. And shortly he shall have a release and full freedom to range the universe of God.

Wealth cannot be pronounced the one thing needful so long as it is easier to spend half a century in prison, than an eternity in Hell. The worst that poverty can do, is to terminate life and hasten the consummation of the Christian's happiness; but the lack of religion can inflict what is infinitely worse. True religion is the one thing needful.

1. True religion is the one thing needful as it constitutes the duty and dignity of the immortal mind. As intelligence raises man above the brutes so religion raises him almost to a level with angels. Sin is a derangement of all the affections and a prostitution of all the abilities. The most excellent things are abhorred and the most odious things are loved. Holiness is the composure of this derangement. It restores the soul to the most noble use of its powers. Holiness unites it to God and to His vast and holy kingdom. Holiness takes it up from the pit of pollution to be a member of the body of Christ, and an heir of glory. If the most dignified and glorious state of an immortal being is the one thing needful then religion brings him to that state.

2. True religion is the one thing needful as it is essential to present happiness. Nothing in Heaven or earth can satisfy the mind, but God. The poor weather-beaten wretch who has spent his life in courting the world, and has been only crushed by its frowns finds in religion that balm to his wounds which he sought in vain in every corner of creation. His vagabond thoughts, which wandered through the world and found no rest, return and settle in God, and there live together in the sweetest harmony. He now has no desire which conscience condemns, and no object recommended by reason from which desire revolts. Long wandering from the center of rest with a vacant and uneasy mind he has at length returned and found that rest in God which the world denied him.

Tormented with ungovernable passions and the restlessness of guilt he was like "the troubled sea which cannot rest"; but now he enjoys the luxury of pardon, and a conscience purged "from dead works to serve the living God."

Before he was cursed with a feverish desire for objects which he could not obtain, and which, if obtained, could bring nothing but uneasiness. But now he embraces the eternal God, who, while He fills his arms, also satisfies his heart.

When he looks abroad into the works of God his eye is filled with grateful tears. He is assured that a wise and faithful Providence governs all. He sees that everything valuable to himself and to the universe, is safe under the shadow of the divine throne. When he lifts his eye to Him whose love gave being to angels and fills all Heaven with light and with song, whose agency ranges through numberless worlds, upholding and governing and benefitting all; when he plunges into the ocean of the divine perfections and loses himself in the immensity and eternity of God, in His boundless love and mercy; and when he is conscious of being embraced by the everlasting covenant, and of having God for an eternal portion he is entranced, and feels immortality growing up within him. Then it is that he looks down and pities earthly kings.

Religion is the one thing needful as a support under affliction. Do you see that poor widow, whose earthly stay was lately carried to the grave? Do you see her bending over the dying-bed of her only child? What then on earth can bind up her breaking heart? I see your hesitating feet turn away, because you cannot bear the sight. But go to her without fear. I see indeed the tear of nature fall, but a sacred calmness meets me in her eye. "It is the Lord!" says she, "let him do what seems good to Him! Bless the Lord, O my soul! Take, and welcome, the last offering I have to give. Would I had an only child to give you every week!" I heard her afterwards say, "That was the happiest day of my life." Now, is not such a religion the one thing needful in such a world as this?

But still a more trying hour is approaching. We must all die. What principle in nature can fortify the soul in that tremendous hour? When about to appear in the presence of God, to render an account of our polluted lives what but a well-grounded hope in Christ can compose the agitated spirits? In that moment, all the glories of the world fade from the sight, and nothing but a saving interest in Christ appears the one thing needful.

3. True religion is the one thing needful for happiness beyond the grave. Both the nature of things and the express conditions of the Gospel make religion necessary to future happiness. It is impossible for a man to enjoy holy objects and employments without a holy taste. Such is the nature of Heaven, that were there no express declaration of the Gospel to the purpose, an unholy man must necessarily be excluded from its happiness. But the Gospel is express on the subject. "Follow after holiness without which no man shall see the Lord." "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." "Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish." "He who believes not, shall be damned."

What then can be needful as true religion? Of what importance is the comfort of a transitory life compared with the happiness of as many ages as there are sands upon the sea-shore, and leaves in the forest and stars in Heaven? During all these ages, the righteous will be ranging high in the realms of bliss, soaring with seraphim and cherubim, holding high communion with God and looking forward to an everlasting increase of their joy! While the damned will spend their eternity in unquenchable fire! At the thought that their torment will never end, but must forever increase, that they are never to have another moment's ease, no, never, never, never but I forbear.

If these things are so (and the half has not been told you) then what madness is it to neglect religion for any other object! Ask the man of business why he does not attend to religion and he has not time. Not time and why is not everything else given up? Will you be more anxious to make provision for children, who may never live to enjoy it than to provide for a deathless soul? Will you be more anxious to provide for old age, which you may never live to see than to provide for eternity, whose glories or whose glooms must forever surround you? Shall all your attention be turned to the time between this and threescore years and ten and no part to that between threescore years and ten and fourscore thousand years?

Your calculation for present comfort, is altogether out of joint! You are attempting to secure present comfort by a neglect of God! What madness is this!

Do you love your children? Seize then the promise which is to you and to them. Teach them by your example to pray. Get a heart deeply impressed with everlasting things that you may faithfully instruct and efficaciously entreat them. And then if you are early called away you will leave them a richer inheritance than all the treasures of this world could compose!

But it is a great mistake to think that you have not time to attend to both business and religion at once, or that they stand in opposition to each other. An idolatrous attachment to the world stands indeed in opposition to religion and religion stands in opposition to that restless care which accompanies a rage to be rich.

But a sanctified attention to business, so far from being opposed to religion is really a part of it. The command of God binds us to a course of steady industry. But it is one thing to attend to business from a supreme attachment to the world and another to perform it with an eye fixed on the authority and glory of God. Now then the weakness of this plea will appear. While you pursue your lawful business as a commanded duty you must attend to religion. Have you not time for this? Your business is dispatched as soon in this way as though your heart was wholly engrossed by it. Have you not time to regard the divine glory in all that you do? Your neglect of this does not arise from lack of time but from lack of love to God. O remember that "the fashion of this world passes away." Soon must you be torn from all your possessions on earth, and nothing will remain to you but your religion. This will appear more valuable in a dying hour, than the wealth of a thousand worlds. O seek this and lay hold on eternal life. Amen.