Female Piety—The Young Woman's Guide Through Life to Immortality
John Angell James, (1785—1859)
THE CHARACTERS OF MARTHA AND MARY OF BETHANY
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But 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!" "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 10:38-42
This beautiful little gem of sacred history is replete with instruction in reference to every one of the individuals which it brings before us. It is a group of characters, each possessing its own peculiar excellence and interest. It says much for the condescension, kindness, and fidelity of the chief personage of the scene; and not less for the feelings and the excellences of the other two. In the person and conduct of Jesus are always combined, without being confounded, all the uncreated glories of the Godhead, and all the milder beauties of the perfect man—and if in the admiration of his humanity we are not to lose sight of his divinity, so neither in the contemplation of his divinity are we to forget his humanity. Human nature had its consummation in him, he is its representative in its best estate, the pattern man. His greatness did not raise him above any kind of goodness or the manifestation of it.
Is friendship one of the virtues of our nature, one of the bonds of society, one of the blessings of life, a sweet and lovely flower that unfolds its beauty and exhales its fragrance in the garden of our social existence? Behold in Jesus Christ this virtue in perfection! He had his friendships, not indeed capricious ones; they were all founded on the characters of their objects; but he had them. His nature was susceptible of special regards. He felt more delight in some of those he loved, than in others of them. Hence the groundlessness of the cavil against Christianity that it nowhere positively enjoins the practice of friendship; for it does more, it exhibits it in the character and conduct of its Divine Founder. For "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus," and this was so well known, that when Lazarus was ill, "his sisters sent unto Christ, saying, Lord, behold he whom you love is sick!" And where shall we find a more beautiful manifestation of friendship than in the gospel narrative of Christ's conduct when Lazarus was dead?
In entering upon this interesting history, I observe, that it is one of the peculiarities of our Savior's discourses that he often takes occasion to graft general truths on special incidents, and makes comparatively small occurrences the vehicle of momentous instructions—in a few words bringing everlasting truth, in some important view of it, home to all times and circumstances. Standing on the spiritual center-point, he, without violence, entwined the minutest and least important circumstances of the present, with the loftiest eternal truths. Thus in the conduct of the two sisters before us, he places together the nothingness of all love and care for the body—in comparison with care for the soul and solicitude about that which is everlasting.
Bethany was a little village about two miles from Jerusalem, inhabited as a suburban retreat by many wealthy and respectable Jews. There dwelt Martha, who appears to have been the elder sister, and manager of the house; her sister Mary, and a brother named Lazarus. Whether the sisters were maidens or widows, we are not informed. All we know of the family is, (and it is the best and most worthy thing to be known of them,) that they were all united, not only by the ties of nature, but of grace, they were all one in Christ, partakers of "the common salvation," by a "like precious faith."
In the bosom of this little quiet and holy family it is probable Jesus occasionally found repose after his bodily fatigues and mental sufferings in the unbelieving city—for his humanity was susceptible on the one hand of both these, as indeed of all the sinless infirmities of our nature, and on the other of the relief afforded by rest and pious converse. "O happy house," says the pious Bishop Hall, "into which the Son of God given to set his foot! O blessed women, that had grace to be the hostesses to the Lord of Heaven and earth! How would I envy your felicity herein, if I did not see the same favor, though in a different way, if I be not lacking to myself, lying open to me!" There are two ways of receiving Christ even in the present day; in himself, by opening to him our hearts in faith; and in his members, by opening our hands in charity, and our doors in hospitality. And Christ will esteem himself better served in these ways, than he would were he again upon earth, by being physically entertained in our houses.
On one occasion when the Divine Visitant made his appearance by an unexpected visit, Martha, as the head of the household, the presiding spirit of the domestic economy, with an anxiety prompted by a loving and generous heart towards her illustrious guest—not altogether, perhaps, unmixed with a desire to display her skill in good housewifery—set about providing the best and fullest entertainment the kitchen could afford. We can see her in the fullness of her cares and the activity of her disposition, cheerfully and busily engaged in getting ready the supper. Eyeing everything with minute inspection and provident forethought, that nothing might be lacking, that was worthy either of her Lord or of herself. Generous, but mistaken woman, do you know so little of your Lord as to imagine he needs, or can be gratified with, all this care and provision for his sake? Had you never heard that he once said to his disciples when pressed to take food, "My food and my drink are to do the will of my Father in heaven?"
Yet it was love, though mistaken love. I can fancy her saying to herself, "Can I ever do enough for him who deserves infinitely more than all I can do? Cheerfully will I give him the best I have, and the most I am able to perform. To give to Jesus, and labor for him, are my delight. He has my heart—and he shall have my hand, my feet, my house, my all."
And where all this while was Mary? Eagerly availing herself of the precious opportunity afforded by the presence of the Great Teacher, sitting at his feet to receive instruction. Such a season might never return; and she was determined to make the best of it by listening to every word the Savior said. Yet we are not to suppose that Martha had not been at the Master's feet at all, listening to any part of Christ's instructions, for it is said of Mary that "she also sat at Jesus' feet and heard his word," evidently implying that some other had been there also, which no doubt was Martha; who, just then, like some of her sex, thinking of the house and its duties while in the sanctuary and service of God—recollected the provision which she supposed necessary, and somewhat abruptly rose up and retired from the presence of Christ to the scene of her domestic solicitude, leaving Mary to be feasted by Christ, while she goes to make a feast for him. "I know not," says the good bishop already quoted, "how to censure the holy woman for an excess of care to welcome her Savior."
How apt are we to measure other people's sense of propriety, and rightness of conduct, by our own—and to blame them for not exercising their religion and expressing their love and obedience to Christ in our mode! Mary perhaps wondered that Martha could on any ground whatever cease to listen to the instruction of Christ, while Martha wondered no less that Mary could sit still and be a learner when she ought to have been active as a provider. Martha would be ready to blame Mary for her lack of love to Jesus by not caring for his refreshment; while Mary would be apt to blame Martha for the lukewarmness of her regard, in not eagerly catching every word that fell from his lips. Let us learn that those may equally love Christ, who do not take exactly the same mode of showing it. Goodness is very ingenious, and while it is uniform in essentials, is multiform in circumstantials.
After waiting some time and expecting Mary to come out and assist her, and often perhaps casting a silent but reproachful look at Mary, as the door stood ajar, and she remained still sitting at the feet of Jesus, Martha's patience could endure it no longer, and in unseemly haste, ruffled disposition, and irreverent manner, she entered the room, and thus addressed herself to Christ. "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to come and help me." It was a sad speech, which in her cooler moments she must have condemned. It was irreverent to Christ, for it accused him in an angry tone of neglect of her comfort. It was unkind to her sister, for it implied that she was lacking both in love to Christ and to herself. It was well she had one to deal with, who knows our frame, and remembers we are but dust. Why did she appeal first to Christ, and arraign her sister before him? Might she not have beckoned Mary away, or whispered in her ear? Or why when she saw her so devoutly engaged, did she not leave her to her rapt enjoyment, and say, "Happy sister, to be thus enjoying your Lord's presence and instructions—would I could feel at liberty from these cares, and be at your side—but somebody must provide for the comfort of the Master, and this belongs to me."
They are not always in the right who are most forward in their appeals to God. Many are more anxious to get God on their side, than to be on the side of God. We must take heed lest we expect Christ to espouse our unjust and groundless quarrels. I am afraid there was in Martha's mind at this time a little of that envy and ill-will which is not infrequently felt by one person at witnessing the superior piety of another. The more eminent religion of one professor is often felt to be a reproach to those who are lukewarm and worldly, and is therefore really in some cases the cause of ill-will and dislike.
We do not find that Mary uttered a syllable in reply to this vehement accusation. I can fancy her lifting up her meek and invoking eye to the Savior, with a look which seemed to say, "O my Lord, I leave the vindication of my love to you and to my sister, in your hands." Gentle spirit! may we learn of you when we are complained of for well-doing, to seal up our lips in silence, and to wait until the manifestation of our innocence comes from above. And how surely will Jesus undertake our cause, and bring forth our righteousness as the light, and our judgment as the noon day. Christ when he might have retorted with keen and cutting severity, replied only with a kind but faithful answer, in which he first rebuked her, and then justified and commended her sister. The very repetition of her name is instructive, as showing how serious Christ was in this act of reproof—"Martha, Martha," as if he had said, "O woman, you are very wrong." Though the wrongdoing was out of love to him, he reproved it; for as many as he loves he rebukes and chastens.
No faults, mistakes, or sins, are more dangerous than those which originate in misdirected love; and none should be more faithfully yet tenderly pointed out to those who commit them, as there are none which the deceitfulness of the human heart will be so backward to see and confess; none which it will be more ready to excuse and defend. The ill-directed love of friends is sometimes more mischievous than the open hostility of foes. Now observe the rebuke of Jesus. "You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful; your mind is full of unnecessary anxiety about those domestic matters, and disturbed by restless agitation. And what you discover on the present occasion is too much your accustomed on others. There is one thing far more important and far more needful than all these matters, which by losing the opportunity I now afford you of receiving instruction, you are sadly neglecting, I mean the care and salvation of your immortal soul."
*It has been contended by some, that by the one thing needful, our Lord intended to suggest to Martha, that instead of the abundance she was preparing, the many varieties of food she was about to place upon the table, one dish only was necessary. I will not deny that this might seem to harmonize with the occasion—much less will I deny, that it would furnish on the part of our Lord, a perpetual and merited rebuke to unnecessary and sinful care, trouble, and expense on the part of professing Christians, to provide costly entertainments for their friends. Good John Newton has some admirable remarks on the subject of entertainments given to Ministers. "Some of us would be better pleased, whatever kindness our friends design to show us, to be treated less sumptuously, and in a way more conformable to the simplicity of our Christian profession. We would not wish to be considered as avowed epicures, who cannot dine well without a variety of delicacies; and if we could suppose that such cost and variety were designed to remind us how much better we fare abroad than at home, we might think it rather an insult than a compliment." The criticism however which would make our Lord refer to such things is obviously a false one—for as Mary's conduct is opposed to that of Martha's, that which she chose, the good part, must be the same as the one thing needful; and if the one thing needful means one dish, Mary's good part must also be one dish, which she chose or provided, rather than the many which her sister was intent upon. But the suggestion of such a meaning is trifling with Scripture rather than explaining it.
Having rebuked Martha, our Lord next vindicates her sister, whom she had so severely and unmeritedly reproached. "Mary has chosen that good part which cannot be taken from her." By the good part we are to understand her sitting at Christ's feet to hear his words, rather than bustling about domestic affairs. That was the good part for the moment, but I believe our Lord meant to extend his meaning in what he said to each of the sisters, to their habitual character and conduct; and as he intended when he said to Martha, that she was too anxious and too much troubled about many things—to describe her usual temperament. So when he said that Mary had chosen the good part, he designed to describe her uniform attention to the high and sacred concern of religion, and to represent her as one who had given herself to the pursuit of eternal salvation. This was matter of choice, and neither of compulsion nor of unintelligent and heartless formality. She voluntarily took up a life of piety—and in doing this had secured an inheritance, incorruptible, undefiled, and that fades not away. I reserve for the conclusion of the chapter some remarks on this description of true piety.
How difficult it is to inflict reproof and not excite anger—and to bestow deserved praise without doing mischief by inflating vanity! No such injury was done in this case. The effect, both of the censure and of the praise, appears to have been beneficial; for in a subsequent chapter of this scriptural history, to which we shall presently have occasion to refer, we find the two sisters as united in affection as ever, and Martha considerably improved.
I shall now attempt an analysis and discriminating delineation of the CHARACTER of these two sisters. I have already remarked that they were in one, and that the most important, feature alike—they were both pious women, they both loved Christ. And what is religion without love to the Savior? In making the inquiry after true piety, fix your attention, concentrate your thoughts, terminate your researches, settle your conclusions, on this simple but comprehensive idea—it is a scriptural, supreme, practical, grateful love to Christ. This Martha, as we have already asserted, undoubtedly possessed, as well as Mary. She, too, notwithstanding her failings, could have returned the same answer as did Peter, "Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you." Underneath the superficial earthliness of that anxious and troubled mind, there burnt a sacred fire of strong attachment to the Savior.
With this sameness of general character, there were circumstantial differences. Just as we have seen two flowers springing from the same root, possessing the same general characteristics, yet one bending towards the earth while the other stands erect and opens its petals more expansively to the sun. Martha and Mary are the exemplars of the peculiarities of two distinct varieties of character and religious tendencies. One the type of a naturally energetic—the other of a quiescent mind. One exhibiting excellence in action—the other in repose. One a life busily devoted to externals—the other careful only for her own religious instruction, as the one thing needful. In the one we see the contemplative Christian musing and feeding in silence upon holy thoughts, and looking up in rapt meditation into heaven—in the other we see the practical Christian, now lavishing her indefatigable cares upon a brother whom she loves, and now ministering in ordinary life to a Savior whom she adores; invoking him in the bitterness of grief, and blessing him in the joy of deliverance. In one, too much of the busy, careful, anxious housewife—in the other, perhaps too much of the contemplative quiescent devotee.
You cannot mistake all this—it is patent to every reader. There was much that was good and useful in Martha's character. She possessed great quickness, alertness, and energy, with practical ability and good sense, which qualified her both for taking a lead herself and for giving an impulse to others; so that she was well fitted for going through with any work to be done, and was always awake to the common calls and the common cares of the ordinary domestic routine of life. And more than this, she was well prepared to work her own way, and to help others, in those emergencies of trouble and of difficulty which not infrequently occur in the changeful scene of human existence. It is a blessed temperament, my young friends, to have that noble hardihood, untiring energy, and undaunted boldness of character, which can grapple with difficulty, surmount obstacles, and instead of being crushed by misfortune, can rise triumphant above it.
But such a temperament has its dangers, and Martha fell into them. She was impetuous, irritable, intolerant, and somewhat rude. She was angry that others were not as energetic as herself, a common fault with people of such a turn of mind. She could not make allowance for differences of disposition. She was however an excellent woman after all.
"Mary was characterized by more depth of thought, more reflection, more sensibility. She was more easily engrossed by an affecting scene or any spiritual subject; more alive at any time to one single profound impression, and apt to be abstracted from other concerns."
We see the characteristics of these two sisters brought out in an affecting scene in their after history, to which I will now advert, and for the particulars of which I refer you to the eleventh and twelfth chapters of the gospel by John. Sickness in an alarming form entered this little family at Bethany, and arrested Lazarus. Jesus was at that time in Bethabara, about thirty miles from Bethany. In the agony of their grief the sisters dispatched a messenger to him, under the supposition that he would come and restore their brother to health. Lazarus, it would seem, expired soon after the messenger left. On receiving the information, Christ, who knew all about the matter, and also what he would do, lingered where he was, two whole days in order that the miracle which he was about to work, might, from the circumstance of the longer continuance of death, be the more signal and convincing. At length he set out for Bethany. Observe in this act his usual mercy, to travel on foot thirty miles to restore a dead man. How delightful is it thus to trace the Savior in his journeys, justifying the description which is given of him, as one, "who ever went about doing good."
Martha was the first to receive information of his approach on this occasion to Bethany, either because as the manager of the house the news was first conveyed to her, or because from her bustling and active disposition she was most likely to hear of it. And now, acting according to her character, she lost not a moment, but immediately hastened forth to meet her Lord, to render him the offices of courtesy and respect, to inform him of the calamity that had befallen them, to pour out to him the sorrows of her heart, and to receive the expressions of his sympathy. She was thus, as ever, ready to be up and doing.
But Mary, either not being informed of the coming of Jesus, or absorbed in a deeper grief, sat still in the house and waited for the entrance of the Comforter. This intensity of sorrow did not escape the notice of the Jews—hence when at length she arose at the call of her sister to go forth and meet her Lord, they said, "She is going unto the grave to weep there." They said this from a knowledge of her character, for they made no such remark on Martha when she went forth. She might be bent on other errands. Mary could go, only to weep.
It is well observed by Candlish, in his discourse on this subject—"In different circumstances the same natural temperament may be either an advantage or a snare. Martha was never so much occupied in the emotion of one subject or scene, as not to be on the alert and ready for the call to another. This was a disadvantage to her when she was so hurried that she could not withdraw herself to wait upon the Word of Life. It is an advantage to her now, that she can, with comparative ease, shake off her depression, and hasten of her own accord to meet her Lord. The same profound feeling, again, which made Mary the most attentive listener before, makes her the most helpless sufferer now—and disposes her almost to nurse her grief, until Jesus, her best Comforter, sends specially and emphatically to rouse her. Nor is it an insignificant circumstance that it is the ever-active Martha who carries to her more downcast sister, the awakening message; so ought sisters in Christ to minister to one another, and so may the very difference of their characters make them mutually the more helpful."
The two sisters both deeply affected with a sense of their loss, meet their Lord, and exhibit in this interview the same difference of character as pervades their whole history. Martha's grief is not so overwhelming as to prevent her utterance; she is calm, cool, and sufficiently collected to enter into argument. She can talk of her sorrow, can refer to her loss, can express her faith, and even modestly suggest to Christ, in a delicate and covert manner—the possibility of his restoring her brother. It was different with Mary. In piety she is of course equal to her sister, but in composure and serenity she is inferior. Her gentle spirit is paralyzed with grief. All she can do is to cast herself prostrate at the feet of Christ, all she can say, is to sob out, "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!"
We cannot pass over one more characteristic, exquisitely delicate and true to nature. Jesus, having asked where Lazarus had been laid, is conducted to the grave, which was a cave with a stone upon it, and he gives orders to take away the stone. It was not Mary who offered the objection founded on the commencement of decay, she is silent still in the unutterable agony of her grief, and the deep reverence of her soul before the Lord. But Martha's marked officiousness makes her forward when it might have been more befitting to be silent and to stand in awe.
Candlish, with nice and just discrimination, points out the wise and considerate manner, which will be observed by every judicious critical reader of the narrative, in which Christ adapts his behavior towards the two sisters. Martha's distress was of such a nature that it admitted of discussion and discourse. Jesus accordingly spoke to her and led her to speak to him, and made to her, as suited her circumstances, some of his most sublime communications touching the resurrection of the body and the life of the soul. While to Mary, who is wrapped in such deep grief, he shows his sympathy in a different way. He is much more profoundly moved. He does not reply to her in words, for her words are few. Sorrow has choked her utterance and over-mastered her soul. But the sight of one so dear to him, lying in such helpless grief at his feet, is an appeal to him far stronger than any supplication. And his own responsive sigh is an answer more comforting than any promise. "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled." And when he had asked of the bystanders, where they had laid him, and received the reply, "Come and see," like Joseph, "he could no longer refrain himself," "Jesus wept."
O most blessed mourner, with whose tears your Savior mingles his own! O sympathy most unparalleled! To each of the two stricken and afflicted ones, our Lord addressed the very consolation that was most congenial. With Martha, Jesus discoursed and reasoned—with Mary, "Jesus wept." It is thus he who knows our frame adapts the communications of his grace, as our temperament and circumstances most need them.
Before we leave this scene of domestic grief, and pass to another incident in the history of Martha and Mary, shall we not turn aside to see this great sight exhibited in the conduct of Jesus? I know I am giving the history of Martha and Mary, but was not Christ so blended with it as to form a part of it, and to constitute the glory of it? Shall I take you to the grave of Lazarus, point you to the mourning sisters, and omit to notice the weeping Savior? Shall I pass over that short but wondrous verse, which tells us with such sublime simplicity, Jesus wept? Every view of Christ is glorious; whether reigning upon his throne in the glory he had with the Father before the world was; or agonizing in the garden, when he sweat as it were great drops of blood; or hanging upon the cross the great sacrifice for sin; or rising from the grave with the keys of death and of Hades at his belt; or ascending to his glory amid the retinue and acclamations of angels. Now all these manifestations produce feelings of awe and wonder.
But oh, his weeping at the grave of Lazarus! The Son of God in tears, not as on the Mount of Olivet, when he signed the death-warrant of Jerusalem, and looked onward from the destruction of the guilty city, to the torments of eternity, of which its fires and plagues were a dark type. No! his tears on this occasion were those of human tenderness, the exquisite sympathy of his noble and perfect manhood with the afflictions of those whom he loved. How many lessons are taught us by those tears. Have they not vindicated and defended humanity from the insults and injuries of stoicism, and made 'chastened sorrow' one of its genuine workings? Have they not consecrated sympathy as one of the virtues of humanity? Have they not made tenderness the adornment of greatness? Have they not raised friendship to the rank of a Christian excellence? Have they not proved that he has not the mind of Christ, who knows not how to weep for the woes of our nature? Jesus wept. There were critics in ancient times who with ruthless fingers cancelled this verse, as thinking it beneath the dignity of Jesus to weep. Barbarian critics! stoical scholars! you would have robbed the Scriptures of one of their brightest gems, and despoiled the character of the Savior of one of its richest beauties.
But now after this graceful episode, let us pass on to one more scene in the history of this happy, holy family. About four months after the resurrection of Lazarus, a supper was given to our Lord and his disciples (most likely on account of the resurrection of Lazarus, who with his sisters were perhaps relations of the host), by a man named Simon, who had been a leper, and had in all probability been healed by Christ. At this supper Lazarus and Martha and Mary were present. Here also we find the contrast existing between the characters of the two sisters, maintained with unbroken continuity and unvarying uniformity. Martha, ever active, ever generously attentive to the comforts of others, ever to be found where energy is required, "served." She had assisted in the preparation, and now busies herself in waiting upon the guests, and especially upon the most distinguished of them all, her Lord and Master whom she loved. Not so with Mary; in that assembly all were forgotten by her but one, on whom she gazed long with the silent rapture of love and devotion, waiting and watching for her opportunity to give him a meditated, practical, and personal expression of her adoring gratitude and affection.
While, according to the custom of the times, he was reclining at table on his couch (not sitting upright as we do on chairs), she stole behind him, and unrestrained by the presence of the guests, brought an alabaster box of spikenard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus and then wiped his feet with her hair. She gave him her most costly article, and employed for him the most ornamental part of her person. For who that loves Christ will not give him the richest and best of their possessions? Was not this Mary all over? Sensibility, gratitude, affection? Does it not harmonize with the listener and mourner whom we have already witnessed?
From one of the company, I mean the traitor who sold his master for thirty pieces of silver, this act of pious affection and liberality drew forth a censure, and under a hypocritical profession of concern for the poor, he expressed his regret that the precious ointment had not been sold and given to the fund for charity. Ah, how often has a plea of charity served as a cloak for covetousness! True it is, as a general principle, that great expense in external magnificence, even when designed to honor Christ, would most commonly be better employed in feeding and clothing his members; but there are some extraordinary occasions when some sort of profusion is not to be blamed. And everything which is given to Christ is acceptable to him when, as in this case, it is love that gives it. Happy is the person who knows like Mary to make that an offering and expression of love to the Savior, which in her days of worldliness and folly she has offered at the shrine of vanity.
Jesus becomes her vindicator against the cavils of Judas, and pronounced a eulogy which the loftiest monarch on earth might covet to receive, "She has done what she could." Of how few can this be said—and yet what lower rule of conduct ought any of us to prescribe for himself than this? Is less than what we can do for Christ, enough to do for him? Have you ever weighed in seriousness of mind this noble testimony, "She has done what she could." What can you do for Christ? What have you done? What ought you to do? What will you do? Be Mary's memorial yours. And to what renown did it raise her? "Wherever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she has done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her." How literally has this been fulfilled. Wherever the Bible has gone, in one hundred and fifty languages, this has been published to the world. And all nations will know of Mary's alabaster box of ointment consecrated to Jesus, and will venerate her memory for this act of pious zeal.
The world is a poor judge in matters relating to God; and God takes delight in honoring those actions, done in love to him, which the world ridicules. Happy are those who are content with the approbation of him who sees the heart. The contradictions and groundless censures of men pass away like the clouds that occasionally veil the sun; but the good actions which are the subject of their envy or their calumny, will remain forever, splendid as the great luminary itself. Good works embalm the memory with an odor more precious and lasting than the perfume of Mary's spikenard.
Reference has been made to this incident, and especially to the praise bestowed by our Lord upon Mary, to prove that the contemplative life is more acceptable in the sight of God than the active life. It is this mistaken notion which led to the establishment of conventional institutions; a system which is no less opposed to the dictates of revelation than it is to the impulses of nature and the welfare of society; which does violence to humanity in order to do honor to Christianity; which stifles all the instinctive yearnings of the heart under the pretext of giving better opportunity for the exercises of devotion; and which, as a natural and necessary consequence, has deposited a muddy soil of immorality upon the surface of Christendom, where the fruits of righteousness cannot grow, though the weeds of superstition may flourish with a dense luxuriance. The supposition that superior sanctity attaches to celibacy, on the one hand, is one of the supports on which the whole Papal system rests, and on the other has been the cause of more abomination in the world than any other single opinion claiming to have a religious sanction. That the history before us will furnish no support to this system is evident. Mary, neither at the time spoken of was a nun, nor did she ever become such. Hers was a piety that blended with, and sanctified, the duties of social life. Whatever was her devotional taste and disposition, it did not drive her from her home, nor cut the ties of her relationships. The design of our Lord's language is not so much to form a comparison between two courses of life, so separate and distinct as not to allow of the mixture of one with the other—as to administer a rebuke to a person who pursuing one course had too much neglected the other. Not to prevent Mary from attending at all to temporal matters—but to engage Martha to less anxiety about them, and to a stricter regard to things unseen and eternal.
And now, my young friends, what in the review of this beautiful little narrative do I recommend? Which of the two characters do I enjoin you to imitate? I answer, all that was excellent in both—without the imperfections of either. Martha's household diligence, without her excessive anxiety, united with Mary's fervent devotion, without her somewhat excessive sensibility.
So far as it could be said of Martha, "She looked well to the ways of her household," let my female friends imitate her due attention to home duties, her cleverness, her diligence, her dispatch, her generous attention to the comfort of her guests, especially those who represent their Lord. Let them be skilled in all the important functions of good housewifery. Let them, if wives, know how to make home comfortable for their husbands; if mothers, for their children; and if widely connected, for their friends. Hospitality is a virtue which should never be lacking in a female heart. She who will not seek to please her husband's friends, but receives them with a frown, will soon learn to leave off pleasing him, and make their home unhappy for all parties. But then, let all this be without anxiousness, and with that graceful and pleasant ease, which will be ensured by order, method, punctuality, and efficiency.
There are various kinds of slavery in the world, and many classes of victims of this cruel bondage. There is among others, the domestic slave, whose tyrant is her husband, and the scene of her bondage, her home. His is very stingy, and allows her scanty supplies for necessities. His selfishness is so engrossing and exacting, that his demands for his own personal ease and indulgence are incessant, and leave her no time for the consideration of her own comfort—and withal, his disposition is so bad, that all her diligence to please are unavailing to give him satisfaction, and to avert the sallies of his irritability, discontent, and complaints. When such a man protests against Negro-slavery, let him begin the work of emancipation at home, by raising the oppressed woman he holds in bondage there, from the condition of a drudge, into the station of a wife. How can she help being anxious and troubled about many things?
But then there are cases, not a few, in which the slavery is self-imposed. The bondage comes from the wife herself, from which the husband would gladly release her, but she will not let him. Some are slaves to neatness, and make their fidgety anxiety about this matter a misery to themselves and all around them. Others are slaves to fashion, and are always anxious and troubled about elegance and refinement. Others are slaves to domestic display, parties and amusements, and are always full of anxiety about making a splendid appearance. Others are slaves to frugality, and are ever vexing themselves to economize. In these ways women will torment themselves and fill their minds with unnecessary cares and self-imposed troubles. To all such we say, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things." With Martha's better qualities, her domestic cleverness and diligence—unite the fervent piety of Mary.
Will you be satisfied with that excellence which fits you only to fill up your place in a habitation from which you may be called away any hour? Be as diligent, I entreat you, in business, as Martha was—but be also as fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, as Mary was. Seek to unite all the holy virtues of the eminent saint—with all the household excellences of the good wife, mother, and manager. Be all you should be in your own house—and all you ought to be in the house of God. What your husbands, when you have them, will desire and expect, is to see you at your post of duty in the family. Meet their desires and fulfill these expectations. You ought—you must! What Christ desires and expects, is to see you sitting at his feet and hearing his word. Meet these desires and expectations also. You ought—you must!
Study the following portrait of a good wife, a cultivated mind, and a sincere Christian, drawn by the pen of Jane Taylor.
"And she whose nobler course is seen to shine
At once with human knowledge and divine;
Who mental culture, and domestic rites,
In close and graceful amity unites.
Striving to keep them in their proper place,
Not interfering with her heavenly race;
Whose constant aim it is, and fervent prayer,
On earthly ground to breathe celestial air."
O! you too anxious and careful housewives, lessen your solicitude. "Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, let your requests be made known unto God." The spirit and influence of vital piety will soften the cares of domestic life, and alleviate its sorrows, where they exist, and inspire an alacrity which will make you go cheerfully about the business of the family—while well regulated attention to domestic duties, so far from unfitting you for the exercise of devotion, will furnish the subjects of your prayers, and prompt the approaches of your soul to God.
And now, in conclusion, let me exhibit to you the description of true religion, as set forth in the language of Christ to Martha. It is indispensable, "One thing is needful." Yes, SAVING RELIGION is indeed needful. Mark the restriction and emphasis, ONE thing—and it deserves this emphasis. It is a matter of universal concern; necessary for all alike; for the rich and the poor; for the young and the old; for male and female. Some things are necessary for one person, but not for another—saving religion is necessary for all alike. It is in itself a matter of the highest importance, of infinite consequence, compared with which all the most valuable objects of time and sense are but as the small dust of the balance! Saving religion will promote every other lawful and valuable interest on earth. It has been pronounced indispensable by those who are most capable of giving an opinion. God has declared it to be needful, by giving his only-begotten Son to die for it upon the cross. Jesus Christ has declared it to be needful, by enduring the agonies of the cross to obtain it. Angels have pronounced it needful by their solicitude for the salvation of men. Apostles, martyrs, reformers, missionaries, and ministers have given their emphatic testimony to its necessity by their labors, prayers, tears, and blood. Your own judgment, in the cooler moments of reflection, declares its necessity; so does your conscience when you are listening to sermons, or suffering affliction—so does your heart, when the world stands revealed before you in its vanity, emptiness, and deceit.
Saving religion is needful now in youth to be your guide; it will be no less so as your comforter amid the vicissitudes of life; your prop under the infirmities of old age—your living hope amid the agonies of dying hours; your defense in the dreadful day of judgment; and your preparation for the felicities of heaven. Must not that which alone can do this, be indispensable, and be in fact the one thing needful?
Dwell, I beseech you, upon this representation. If saving religion were as miserable and as melancholy as your mistaken notions of it represent, yet it is needful. It is not what you may not have, and yet do well without it—a superfluity, but not a necessary. No! It is needful. Nothing else can be substituted for it, or in the smallest degree compensate for the lack of it. In the absence of saving religion, you lack the most necessary thing in the universe—you are really poor—even amid abounding wealth.
Saving religion is the only thing that is indispensable. There are many other things which are desirable, valuable, pleasurable, and may be lawfully pursued; but they are not indispensable. Saving religion is absolutely so to secure solid happiness here and eternal felicity hereafter. O, young people, call in your vagrant thoughts, your discursive inquiries, your divided and scattered activities, and concentrate them upon this one thing. Settle it with yourselves, that whatever else you may not have, you must have saving faith. It is well at the outset of life to be informed, by an authority which is infallible, what is most necessary for the pilgrim upon earth. Let me entreat you to remember your own interest in it; it is necessary for you, whose eye shall read this page. Do therefore inquire, solemnly and seriously enquire, into your own conduct in reference to it. Say to yourselves, "Have I thought seriously about saving religion? Have I seen the importance of it? Has it lain with a due and an abiding weight upon my mind? Has it brought me in penitence, prayer, and faith, to Christ as my Savior? Am I acting in life as if I considered saving religion the one thing needful. Am I striving or willing to make everything subordinate to it, my interests, my tastes, my pleasures, my passions?"
And then how transcendently excellent is true religion. It is the "good part which shall never be taken from us." Excellent it is, in every view we can take of it, for it is the reception of the first truth, and the enjoyment of the chief good. It makes us good—for it makes us like God; and brings good to us—for it leads us to enjoy God. It was the bliss of Adam in Paradise, and is the happiness of the spirits made perfect in heaven. It is the beginning of heaven upon earth, and will be the consummation of heaven when we have left earth. It is far better than knowledge, wealth, fame, or pleasure—for it will stand by us when all these things leave us!
Yes, it is, "the good part, which can never be taken from us." Neither force nor fraud can deprive us of this. It is above the vicissitudes of life, and unaffected by the changes of fortune. Oh, it is glorious to think of our possessing something that bids defiance to all the assaults of men or demons! Go where you will—saving religion will go with you. It will be as inseparable from you. How much then is included in that precious declaration, "The good part which cannot be taken from you," which shall remain with you, in you, for you—when friends have left you—health has left you—fortune has left you—a portion all-sufficient, inalienable, eternal!
True religion is a voluntary thing, "Mary has chosen that good part which cannot be taken from her." It is not the external compulsion of authority, nor the internal compulsion of fear—but the free choice of love. It is not mere blind, unintelligent ritual—an unmeaning, heartless round of ceremonies, performed without motive or design. No, it is the free-will offering of the soul to God, who says, "Give me your heart!" and to whom the soul replies, "I give myself to you!" Where there is no choice, there is no religion. Hence the language of Moses to the children of Israel, "I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing—therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live." So it is with you at this moment.
There on the one hand is true religion with all its duties and its privileges—its present enjoyments and its future eternal happiness, this is life, the life of the soul now, and eternal life hereafter. There on the other hand is ungodliness, with all its sins and sorrows here, and its unutterable and eternal miseries hereafter. There are you so fearfully and wonderfully placed between the two. And I am (O, solemn and momentous position!) urging you by every motive that can appeal to your reason, your heart, your conscience, and even your self-love—to urge you to choose life. You must make your choice. You cannot evade the choice. One or the other must be yours. Were you to attempt neutrality, it is impossible. Those that do not choose life, are considered by God as choosing death.
By what witnesses are you surrounded in this crisis of your being! What spectators are looking on upon this eventful scene of your history! Parents are waiting, watching, and praying for your decision on the side of eternal life. With silent, breathless earnestness, they are agonizing for your soul and her destiny. Ministers are fixing their minds intently upon your situation, and in yearning anxiety for your welfare are saying, "O that they may choose the good part which can never be taken from them." Angels with benevolence hover over you, ready to commence their benevolent activities, and become as ministering spirits to your salvation. Devils with malignity are collecting to rejoice, with such delight as demons can experience, in your choice of death. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are waiting, witnessing, and ready to assist your election. Yes, such value is there attaching to one human soul; with such importance is its decision for the choice or refusal of religion invested—that heaven, earth, and hell are in some measure moved by the scene of its being called to choose between life and death, and thus three worlds are interested in the outcome. Make then your choice. Pause, ponder, and pray; it is a choice which eternity will confirm to your unutterable torment—or to your ineffable felicity. Almighty God, direct their choice!
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