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The One Thing Needful

Fr. Luke A. Veronis

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things but one thing is needful and Mary has chosen the better part and this shall not be taken away from her.”

Most of us are familiar with this story. Jesus visits the house of his dear friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Martha wants to make sure everything is proper and beautiful for the visit of their dear honored guest, so she’s busy hosting and serving and taking care of all the needs of proper hospitality. She gets frustrated, though, when she sees her sister offer little help with the hospitality and instead simply sit at the feet of Jesus and attentively listen to His words.

Anyone who has ever hosted a party or welcomed honored guests can surely relate to this story. Martha’s doing all the work and her sister is just sitting around doing nothing but listening to the guest. Frustration quickly turns to irritation which turns to anger! Finally, Martha blurts out, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” She’s annoyed with her sister and hoped that Jesus would side with her and maybe chastise her sister’s laziness. Yet Jesus does the exact opposite.

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things but one thing is needful and Mary has chosen the better part and this shall not be taken away from her.”

What does that mean “One thing is needful and Mary has chosen the better part.” We all know how important it is to have workers, people who are ready to put in the time and effort to do the task in front of them. In our church, we’re deeply appreciative of all the volunteers who readily help out at our events!

Martha’s sister Mary chose instead to keep her eyes on Jesus, to give her full attention to Him and His teachings.  Nothing else was important for Mary at that moment because she was in the presence of her Lord. He is the center of everything!

Of course, Martha was offering necessary hospitality yet she was distracted from what was most important. She then allowed herself to get annoyed and irritated and angry at her sister. To serve with a spirit of joy and gladness is a blessed virtue. Yet once we allow the demon of irritability and anger enter, we destroy the blessing of the virtue.

“One thing is needful and Mary has chosen the better part.” How many of us understand what this “one needful thing” is in our lives? How many of us prioritize what is truly needful? To be honest, many of us treat Jesus and His teachings and our relationship with Him as something nice, but not something central. We don’t “seek first the kingdom of God” above all else. We allow ourselves to get distracted by many worldly pursuits that demand our attention. We turn to what we think is urgent and temporarily important instead of what is essential and eternal.

Now it’s interesting that we read this Gospel story at all the major feasts honoring the Virgin Mary. The story has nothing to do with the Theotokos, yet we read it because the Virgin Mary, above all others in the history of the world, offers the greatest example of choosing the “one thing needful.”

All the saints of our Church are examples for us to imitate, but the Virgin Mary is the first among the saints.  In the Matins service before the Divine Liturgy, we hear the Gospel story of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel meets the young maiden Mary and asks her to accept to become the Mother of God. When the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary that she is the chosen one, she has the free choice to either accept or reject.  God never imposes His will on anyone.  The greatest gift He has given us is freedom, freedom to choose to follow and obey Him, or freedom to turn away from Him and follow the ways of the world. 

Think a moment about the Virgin Mary and her choice. She was a simple, unassuming, faithful young virgin, who despite her youth, willingly dedicated her whole life to God. She was raised in the Temple from the age of two. At this point in her life, she was back in Nazareth as a young maiden. She knew the trouble she could face if she accepted the Archangel’s request - the misunderstanding of being pregnant outside of marriage, the difficulty of not having people believe her explanation, and even the threat of being stoned to death. The Virgin Mary could have responded she wasn’t ready to make such a serious decision. She was only 14 or 15 years old.  “I am too young to decide. Please, choose someone else because I want to live a normal life.”

Instead of excuses, however, we see courage. She humbly responds, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” From this faithful response, God uses Mary to carry the message of hope and salvation to the whole world. She is the first person to accept the coming of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, and to share His Good News to all creation.

How many of us today are willing to answer God, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” The desire of Christ is for everyone to live a holy life which radiates His light onto others. It doesn’t matter what we do, or what position we hold, or how old we are. Most of us are much older than the Virgin Mary when she made her life-changing decision.  God seeks from us, just as He sought from the Virgin Mary, to “pursue the one thing needful” and commit our lives to Christ, obediently following the path of the kingdom of God.

We also see in the Virgin Mary’s life humility. She never sought to glorify herself.  When people come to her, she directs them towards her Son. We even see this in the many different icons of the Holy Mother. Mary opens her hands and points to Jesus, inviting the whole world to come to Him and embrace Him. The Church honors Mary to such a degree “not only because she is Theotokos, but because she is Panagia, All-Holy,” notes Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. “Among all God's creatures, she is the supreme example of synergy or cooperation between the purpose of the deity and human freedom. God, Who always respects our liberty of choice, did not wish to become Incarnate without the consent of His Mother.”

St. Nicolas Cabasilas writes, "The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of His Power and His Spirit...but it was also the work of the will and faith of the Virgin...Just as God became Incarnate voluntarily, so He wished that His Mother should bear Him freely and with her full consent." That is why the Church not only looks at Christ as the new Adam, but Mary as the new Eve. Her will of God counterbalanced Eve's disobedience in Paradise.

The humble response and life of the Virgin Mary can inspire us to live our lives focused on the “one thing needful,” in a way that will glorify God.  Like the Theotokos, we  can become instruments in the hands of God and glory Him with our lives.

One other aspect we see from the Virgin Mother is the centrality of prayer. Our Church realizes the Virgin Mary not only prayed in the temple from a young age and throughout her life in the Gospels but continues to pray to God on our behalf even now. This is why we offered the Paraclesis/Supplication Service to the Virgin Mary every night these past 14 days.  In this service we ask the Theotokos to continually intercede on our behalf, and to ask her Son to help us in our times of need and distress. Yet we should not only ask her for prayers, we ourselves should imitate her example and pray ourselves constantly to God.  We should lift up our voices to God in praise, thanksgiving, worship as well as in supplication for the needs of others. 

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things but one thing is needful and Mary has chosen the better part and this shall not be taken away from her.”

Today, on this feastday of the Virgin Mary, we lift up the Theotokos as the greatest example of someone who “chose the better par for the one thing needful.” May we imitate her life as we strive to live out her prayer, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”