Skip to main content

Only One Thing is Necessary: Martha and Mary

Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you
unless you remain in me. I am the vine,
you are the branches.

John 15:4-5.

Luke 11:38-42 reads:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" 41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

The text above has been classically interpreted as the human tension between vita activa and vita contemplativa or the life of action and the life of contemplation. On the surface, Jesus bestows his blessing to Mary who "has chosen what is better" by keeping profoundly still than the busy but gracious host Martha. The tension between the two sisters are real in that they are two opposing forces of the same act of welcoming the Christ. One has chosen to prepare accommodations (food, water, etc.) for the guest's comfort while the other has chosen to not only accompany Christ but to sit at his feet and listen to him. Both have the same intention of receiving the Christ but both have chosen differently on how to accept him.

And by Jesus saying that Martha should not be "worried and upset about so many things," He tells us that "only one thing is needed." Now the tension shifts from action and contemplation to the multiplicity or the singularity of contemplation alone. To think the many or the One, that is, to have many objects and representations in mind or to have only one single thought. "The fox knows many things," Archilocus said, "but the hedgehog knows one big thing." To know many is to support the weight of that knowledge and shift its weight onto juggling many acts (e.g. doing this or that); but to know one thing only may also be as heavy as knowing many, and it too means transposing it into one great act.

It is not, however, a question of weight and thereby of importance. Contrary to popular exegesis, when the Christ says that Mary has chosen the "better" it was not because she was a contemplative; it was because she has chosen that one great thought and has chosen to do that one great act. What did she choose, which is "better" and "cannot be taken away from her"?

The text above does not say. But the mystic Meister Eckhart offers us a clue. The Latin text of the first passage (Luke 10:38) reads:
Intravit Jesus in quoddam castellum et mulier quadem, Martha nomine, excepit illum in domum suam.

But in his sermon on the above passage, Eckhart loosely translates it into German (translated in turn into English) thus:
Our Lord Jesus Christ went into a little castle and was received by a virgin who was a wife.

Compare Eckhart's translation to the now accepted translation of the mentioned line:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.

You can see immediately that the controversial preacher lives up to his reputation of not only being a daring translator into the vernacular but more importantly being an original thinker as well. But what is key here, Reiner Schurmann in Wandering Joy, points out, is the "false" translation of mulier quadem, Martha nomine into "a virgin who was a wife." He says that one cannot know if Eckhart designates "virgin who was a wife" either to "woman" (mulier) or to Martha herself. And what is more telling here is that, it would not even be Martha at all which would represent that who would be both virgin and wife.

Nonetheless, everything stands and falls on this translation for it is in these words that Eckhart signals not only what sets Martha apart from Mary but also the "hidden" meaning of the scripture--if there be any. But let us heuristically try it out and see where he takes us. Setting aside the question who really received Christ, Eckhart's bold claim here is that Jesus was "received by a virgin who was a wife."

The tension between "virgin" and "wife" appears insurmountable if it is confronted straightaway without a clue to their inner dynamic. In order to displace their opposing weight, let us take a look into the act of receiving itself before the person who does the receiving. Eckhart uses the German word enpfangen, which means "to receive." But at the same time, the word also means "to conceive." Here, the paradox disappears because conception naturally becomes possible only from reception (e.g. ideas and concepts, giving birth, etc.). Reception precedes conception and is the necessary condition for it; the relationship between the two, hidden in the word enpfangen, is one of logical necessity and of precedence.

Yet this logical or causal relationship between receiving and conceiving cannot shed light on the paradox of being "a virgin who was a wife." Receiving and conceiving are related only in the priority of order and thus remain different "moments" self-sufficient by themselves. But here Eckhart claims a strict identity in being both virgin and wife at the same time, i.e. she is not first virgin (reception) and then wife (conception).

Eckhart himself does not offer any further light on strict identity of being a virgin and wife which he marks for that who receives Christ. He goes on to say in the sermon that "If a human were to remain a virgin forever, he would never bear fruit. If he is to become fruitful, must necessarily be a wife." And again, "'Wife,' here is the noblest name that can be given to the mind, and it is indeed more noble than 'virgin.'" After raising the problem, Eckhart slips into his usual treatment of detachment --that the mind should be so free of images as to be a virgin ready to accept and conceive the coming of the Godhead. Yet what this does is only to reiterate the problem of necessary succession between being a virgin first before becoming a wife. And there must be something higher than what happens in time (order and precedence) for it was Eckhart himself who preaches that the soul (sele) who receives God is like him--beyond time and succession.

If being virgin and wife is to be thought not in the order of succession but in the order of importance, then they must be imagined as happening at the same time, that is, one becomes a virgin and a wife instantaneously. How to think this? What kind of "moment" can both receive and conceive without lag? What kind of "act" can both accept and give (birth)?

Nowhere else do we find such "moment" or "act" than in her who carries Martha's sister's name: in Mary. Mary was both virgin and wife in that very moment and act where she says to Gabriel these words:
Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word (Luke 1:38).

All it took for Mary, who was a virgin, to also become a wife was for her to consent that God's will to be done. Being saying yes, she became a wife--"Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus (Luke 1:31). But also by saying yes, she remained a virgin--"How can thus be, since I have no relations with a man?" (Luke1:34). The consent itself, the fiat, enables her being both a virgin and wife at the same time and without delay. And to think physiologically and scientifically how this was possible--however much ink has been spilled due to this--is not the real matter for thought. That is not the mystery.

What is the real mystery in the mystery of the immaculate conception is how was it possible that this young virgin consented to the word of God. As Elizabeth herself says to Mary: "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled" (Luke 1:45). The real mystery is the mystery of Mary's fiat.

And this is where Eckhart joins us again. He says in later in the same sermon:
A virgin who is a wife, free and disengaged from attachment, is at all times equally close to God and to herself. She bears many fruits, which are big, neither more nor less than God himself. This virgin who is a wife produces this fruit and this birth, and she bears fruits, a hundred or a thousand times a day, yes incessantly, by giving birth and by becoming fruitful from the most noble ground.

The Virgin Mary or this Mary at Christ's feet are the perfect picture of fruitfulness. Mary, in listening to the words of Christ, receives Him in her soul, and has thus "chosen what is better." The Virgin, in letting God's will be done, receives and conceives in her narrow womb the Son of God; and this will never be taken away from her--even in His death.

Martha, busy with so many things, forgets that there is one thing necessary to become fruitful: to surrender herself to His feet and let God do the work.

Let us end with a passage from Eckhart in his Counsels on Discernment:
This is what God looks for in all things: that we surrender our will. When Saint Paul had done a lot of talking to our Lord, and our Lord had reasoned much with him, that produced nothing, until he surrendered his will and said: "Lord, what do you want me to do?" (Acts 9:6).


  1. Anonymous12/26/2008

    What if Martha was the virgin wife of Jesus and worried about his relationship with Mary? After all, Martha is the Mistress of the House and some mysterious illness or perhaps scandal affects her brother Lazarus in John's Gospel. It could be that Mary's extravagant love for Jesus has caused gossip and caused some to think that Jesus has had an extra marital affair with a Samaritan, a woman from the Hellenistic tower city of Samaria. (See John 8:1-8 and John 8:48)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Fields of Amorsolo

The first National Artist in Philippine history, referred to warmly as the “Grand Old Man of Philippine Art,” Fernando Amorsolo (1892–1972) still stands today as a looming figure in Philippine art responsible for being one of the artists who helped define what we up to now visually imagine as essentially Filipino. The images of rural life, of golden fields below clear blue, blue skies; the smiles of farmers which diminish their weariness as they plant, harvest, and winnow rice;most especially the iconic figure of the Filipina maiden working in the fields—the beloved dalagang bukid--; these, I believe, even after generations of Filipino painters since Amorsolo, have remained in our hearts and memory. Amorsolo did what great masters do for their country: bestow upon it its own icons, represent its native beauty, that is, to give its people and lands an identity and a face. There are, however, as many intentions for art as there are works of art. And these intentions will always remain in…

Without Why (The Rose) II

Lifetime is a child at play; moving pieces in a game.
Kingship belongs to the child.

Heraclitus, Fragment 52

The child at play never asks itself why it plays. The child just plays; and if it could, it will play as long as possible, it will play throughout its life. See its delight and witness its smile.

If it would never go hungry or if the sun would never set it too will never leave its playmates and playthings. Time flies at play because it stops or suspends time. Time -- as we grownups only know too well -- is the culprit for order, schedules and priorities; yet for the child, there is no time, there is only bottomless play. It is we who impose that this or that should be done at this or that time. We stop the absurd and supposedly endless play ("He does nothing but play") because we insist that discipline, order and priorities be instilled in the child at an early age ("He needs to learn other things beside playing"). So that the child will become like us one da…

A Love Sooner than Later

BROWN PENNY William Butler YeatsI whispered, 'I am too young,' And then, 'I am old enough'; Wherefore I threw a penny To find out if I might love. 'Go and love, go and love, young man, If the lady be young and fair.' Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny, I am looped in the loops of her hair. O love is the crooked thing, There is nobody wise enough To find out all that is in it, For he would be thinking of love Till the stars had run away And the shadows eaten the moon. Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny, One cannot begin it too soon.

One cannot begin to love too soon--conversely, one should not love too late or in life's demise. That waiting for the "right time," or the "right person" to love, what are these but the cries or sighs of an unready, even tired, heart? One becomes ready only when one begins to understand love slowly (or again), and one understands love progressively when one, simply, performs the act of love. Love, like mos…