Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
38. And it happened, while they were traveling, that he entered into a certain village; and a certain woman, called Martha, received him into her house. 39. And she had a sister called Mary, who also, sitting at the feet of Jesus, heard his word. 40. And Martha was cumbered about much serving; who stood, and said, Lord, hast thou no care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore assist me. 41. And Jesus answering said to her, Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and distressed about many things. 42 But one thing is necessary: Mary hath chosen the good part, which shall not be taken from her.
38. And it happened that he entered into a certain village. This narrative shows, that Christ, wherever he came, did not devote himself to his private concerns, or consult his own ease or comfort; but that the single object which he kept in view was, to do good to others, and to discharge the office which had been committed to him by the Father. Luke relates that, having been hospitably received by Martha, as soon as he entered the house, he began to teach and exhort. As this passage has been basely distorted into the commendation of what is called a Contemplative life, we must inquire into its true meaning, from which it will appear, that nothing was farther from the design of Christ, than to encourage his disciples to indulge in indolence, or in useless speculations. It is, no doubt, an old error 253 , that those who withdraw from business, and devote themselves entirely to a contemplative, lead an Angelical life. For the absurdities which the Sorbonnists 254 utter on this subject they appear to have been indebted to Aristotle, who places the highest good, and ultimate end, of human life in contemplation, which, according to him, is the enjoyment of virtue. When some men were driven by ambition to withdraw from the ordinary intercourse of life, or when peevish men gave themselves up to solitude and indolence, the resolution to adopt that course was followed by such pride, that they imagined themselves to be like the angels, because they did nothing; for they entertained as great a contempt for active life, as if it had kept them back from heaven. On the contrary, we know that men were created for the express purpose of being employed in labor of various kinds, and that no sacrifice is more pleasing to God, than when every man applies diligently to his own calling, and endeavors to live in such a manner as to contribute to the general advantage. 255
How absurdly they have perverted the words of Christ to support their own contrivance, will appear manifest when we have ascertained the natural meaning. Luke says that Mary sat at the feet of Jesus Does he mean that she did nothing else throughout her whole life? On the contrary, the Lord enjoins his followers to make such a distribution of their time, that he who desires to make proficiency in the school of Christ shall not always be an idle hearer but shall put in practice what he has learned; for there is a time to hear, and a time to act. 256 It is, therefore, a foolish attempt of the monks to take hold of this passage, as if Christ were drawing a comparison between a contemplative and an active life, while Christ simply informs us for what end, and in what manner, he wishes to be received.
Though the hospitality of Martha deserved commendation, and is commended, yet there were two faults in it which are pointed out by Christ. The first is, that Martha carried her activity beyond proper bounds; for Christ would rather have chosen to be entertained in a frugal manner, and at moderate expense, than that the holy woman should have submitted to so much toil. The second fault was, that Martha, by distracting her attention, and undertaking more labor than was necessary, deprived herself of the advantage of Christ’s visit. The excess is pointed out by Luke, when he speaks of much serving; for Christ was satisfied with little. It was just as if one were to give a magnificent reception to a prophet, and yet not to care about hearing him, but, on the contrary, to make so great and unnecessary preparations as to bury all the instruction. But the true way of receiving prophets is, to accept the advantage which God presents and offers to us through their agency.
We now see that the kind attention of Martha, though it deserved praise, was not without its blemishes. There was this additional evil, that Martha was so delighted with her own bustling operations, as to despise her sister’s pious eagerness to receive instruction. 257 This example warns us, that, in doing what is right, we must take care not to think more highly of ourselves than of others.
42. But one thing is necessary. Some give a very meager interpretation of these words, as if they meant that one sort of dish is enough. 258 Others make ingenious inquiries, but beside the purpose, about Unity. 259 But Christ had quite another design, which was, that whatever believers may undertake to do, and in whatever employments they may engage, there is one object to which every thing ought to be referred. In a word, we do but wander to no purpose, if we do not direct all our actions to a fixed object. The hospitality of Martha was faulty in this respect, that she neglected the main business, and devoted herself entirely to household affairs. And yet Christ does not mean that every thing else, with the exception of this one thing, is of no importance, but that we must pay a proper attention to order, lest what is accessory—as the phrase is—become our chief concern.
Mary hath chosen the good part. There is no comparison here, as unskillful and mistaken interpreters dream. Christ only declares, that Mary is engaged in a holy and profitable employment, in which she ought not to be disturbed. “You would have a good right,” he says, “to blame your sister, if she indulged in ease, or gave herself up to trifling occupations, or aimed at something unsuitable to her station, and left to you the whole charge of the household affairs. But now, when she is properly and usefully employed in hearing, it would be an act of injustice to withdraw her from it; for an opportunity so favorable is not always in her power.” There are some, indeed, who give a different interpretation to the latter clause, which shall not be taken away from her, as if Christ intended to say, that Mary hath chosen the good part, because the fruit of heavenly doctrine can never perish. For my own part, I have no objection to that opinion, but have followed the view which appeared to me to be more in accordance with Christ’s design. 260
“Il est vray que ceste erreur n’est pas d’auiourd’huy, mais est bien ancien;” — “it is true that this error is not of today, but is very old.”
“Some readers may happen to ask, Who were the Sorbonnists, or, as they are often called, the Doctors of the Sorbonne? In reply, I take the liberty of extracting from a volume, which I gave to the world a few years ago, a few remarks on this subject.” — “The College of the Sorbonne, in Paris, takes its name from Robert de Sorbonne, who founded it in the middle of the thirteenth century. Its reputation for theological learning, philosophy, classical literature, and all that formerly constituted a liberal education, was deservedly high. In the Doctors of the Sorbonne the Reformation found powerful adversaries. The very name of this University, to which the greatest scholars in Europe were accustomed to pay deference, would be regarded by the multitude with blind veneration. If such men as Calvin, Beza, Melancthon, and Luther, were prepared by talents and acquirements of the first order to brave the terrors of that name, they must have frequently lamented its influence on many of their hearers. Yet our author meets undaunted this formidable array, and enters the field with the full assurance of victory. Despising, as we naturally do, the weak superstitions and absurd tenets held by the Church of Rome, we are apt to underrate our obligations to the early champions of the Reformed faith, who encountered with success those veteran warriors, and contended earnestly (Jude 1:3) for the faith which was once delivered to the saints.”—(Biblical Cabinet, volume 30, p. 140.)—Ed.
“Met peine de vivre en sorte qu’ il apporte quelque profit a la societe commune des hommes;” — “endeavors to live so as to yield some advantage to the general society of men.”
“Car il y a temps d’ouir, et temps de faire, et de mettre la main a la besongne;” — “for there is a time to hear, and a time to act, and to put the hand to the work.”
“En la conduite du banquet, et bruit de mesnage;” — “in the preparation of the entertainment, and the noise of household affairs.”
“Comme si Christ entendoit qu’il y a assez d’un mets, ou d’une sorte de viande;” — “as if Christ meant that one dish, or one sort of food, is enough.”
“De Monade.” — “Les autres plus subtilement, mais mal a propos, traittans ici de l’unite: comme si par ce mot de Un, Iesus Christ eust voulu exlurre tout nombre;” — “others more ingeniously, but inappropriately, treaying here of unity: as if, by the word One, Jesus Christ intended to exclude all diversity of employment.”
Calvin appears to interpret the words, which shall not be taken from her, not as a doctrinal statement, but as a command, or, at least, as marking out the line of conduct which ought to be pursued by Martha and others towards Mary. The good part, or, as he explains it, “the holy and profitable employment,” shall not be take, from her. “She ought not to be disturbed,” and “it would be an act of injustice to withdraw her from it.” — Ed.