The One Thing Needful


Having spent half of the last week at Sts. Mary and Martha Monastery, it is unavoidable to think about these Holy Myrrhbearers. Among those who were the first witnesses of Christ’s resurrection, these Myrrhbearing women are perhaps better known for their conversations with Christ when he visited in their home and at the time of their brother Lazarus’ death. In our encounters with them in the gospel we learn that Martha was “busy with many things” (when there’s a crowd under your roof, somebody seems to always assume Martha’s role). Mary sat at Christ’s feet. When Martha complained that her sister was not being very helpful, Christ said, “One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the better part.”

Without belaboring that particular event, the phrase, “One thing needful,” has passed on into monastic and spiritual writing in Orthodox tradition as synonymous with prayer. The one thing we must have, even if we have nothing else, is prayer. The simple reason behind this is the better part that Mary chose: prayer is choosing God Himself. God is truly the One Thing Needful. We should not and must not substitute things for God – not even things we think to be good. For nothing is good in and of itself except for God. Every other good is relative to Him Who alone is good.

I sit visiting with tomorrow’s gospel – the ending of chapter 6 of Matthew – “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness and all these things will be added to you as well.” It’s the same message. We need God and if we seek Him first and above all, other things will have a way of falling into place. Not that this is a key to the “American Good Life.” The Kingdom of God and its righteousness and the American Dream are not the same thing. Perhaps this reality is something that shakes the faith of many. They sought God and did not get the American Dream.

In its final analysis, that dream is a delusion. It is a substitute for God and His kingdom and as such makes itself an enemy of the gospel. I heard a Bob Dylan quote the other day which said, “The Commandment: ‘Thou shalt have no other God before me,’ is just fine if its the right God.”

The question for me today and tomorrow – and every day beyond – is always, “How do I seek God today and His righteousness?” If I can manage to ask the question honestly and not deceive myself in the answer, then it will be a good day.

One Thing Needful.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





12 responses to “The One Thing Needful”

  1. […] 16th, 2007 by kevinburt One Thing Needful by Father […]

  2. Adam Avatar

    “The Kingdom of God and its righteousness and the American Dream are not the same thing.”

    I’m starting to realize that for myself. In some ways, the greed that accompanies the ‘American Dream’ seems to exclude one from the Kingdom of God. My American Dream is to be joyful, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Lord help me to get there.

    On a side note, i ask you would prayer for my safe journey back to the USA. Spent the last semester studying abroad in CR.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed, may God bless your return. I love our nation and am proud to be part of it – but as St. Paul told us, “Use not liberty as an occasion for the flesh,” which for too many has become the meaning of the dream. There’s a better dream which not even a tyrant nor an economic cycle can inhibit.

  4. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    Fr. Stephen writes: “I heard a Bob Dylan quote the other day which said, “The Commandment: ‘Thou shalt have no other God before me,’ is just fine if its the right God.”

    Dear Fr. Stephen, can you elaborate on this a bit? It could just be that I am not all there and not reading aright, which is probably the norm.
    Do you think the Dylan quote means that we are worshipping mammon and other false gods or that there are different types of the one True God? In other words, is the God of the Orthodox the same god of the Protestants and the Catholics and the Jews and the Muslims, etc.
    I guess that is where I am confused, sorry if it seems silly, just trying to get the context and I don’t know Dylan the rocker from the poet or are they the same?

  5. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Dylan the rocker is not the same as the poet. His comment was referring to the God of Mammon. In a fairly interesting article of a year or so back I read a description of Dylan (Bob the Folk Singer) as actually a fairly conservative (at least in terms of life and God) individual. He has a strong sense of justice in his lyrics and of the irony that mocks power that is in fact no power at all. But I’m a guy from the 60’s and can’t help but like him.

  6. Dolly Avatar

    Poor Martha. Could we consider, and be in truth, that Jesus was more focused on Martha’s state of being–worry, fret, anxiety–than her activity per se? In the same way that anxiety in Matt 6 keeps us from receiving legitimate needs as well as distracting us from the overarching need of seeking first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, could we also consider anxiety as keeping us from entering into the presence of Christ as in the Martha/Mary account? Couldn’t a legitimately busy Martha remain at task and, at the same time, enter into the one thing needed: stillness of soul, as Mary, to listen to, gaze upon, absorb the spirit of her Master?

    Tying this to yesterday’s discussion, “Why is Love so difficult?”, perhaps our difficulty lies in a concept of love that suffers from the same delusion as the American Dream: Panacea. Love becomes difficult when it fails to meet our expectations of satisfaction, contentment, “peace”–of making me feel good, primarily about myself. (You know, that great feeling when Bobby, Billy, or Christie “loves” me the way he or she “should”?)

    Referencing June 10th’s discussion, “What is at stake?,” love takes on a different hue when we “lay aside earthly cares,” still our souls, and listen to, gaze upon, absorb the person of Bobby, Billy, or Christie. When we downshift to the speed of our young child; when we turn off the TV to listen to our spouse; when we make space for teenagers to determine quality-time; when we back off of raging at others’ slowness and admit the rush is because of our own lateness; when we, like the Forerunner, decrease so that He might increase, love separates itself from our expectations and manipulations. From this vantage, love is seen as being not like us at all, and frees us.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    Amen. Well put. I think the very heart of love is not me but the other which in our brokenness is difficult when it should be so easy.

  8. Visibilium Avatar

    I’m glad that you posted the Dylan quotation. It appears to encapsulate my contention is that Western secularism isn’t as anti-god as it’s a rebellion against the atrocious god of the Western Christian heresies. I think that Orthodoxy has much to offer as an alternative view, but I don’t see a lot of Orthodox sympathy for the plight of an intellectual people who are fed up with empty nonsense of Latinism and Protestantism. Westerners, like everyone else, want to believe in something that makes sense, and the Enlightenment can be seen as a pursuit of reasonableness.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    To be fair to Dylan (and more specific) I think he had in mind the God of the military industrial complex rather than any heretical constructions of the churches of the West. But as I noted, Dylan is strangely conservative in his views and tends to have an idea about God that is pretty Biblical. He knows, for instance, that God does not think well of oppressing the poor and the like, but he doesn’t seem to equate non-oppression with the erection of a government program. He disowns the prophet’s mantle even more vigorously than did Amos, but sometimes he still sounds like one to me.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman


    There is no question that Orthodox Christianity has much to offer intellectually. Here’s the rub, it does not necessarily “make sense” until one releases the intellect into the experience of the Church. That takes faith of course. Each time the step is made the “sense” of the Church becomes more and more evident. All of the false dichotomies that are endemic to western thought can be healed (intellect/heart, spirit/matter, etc).

  11. Visibilium Avatar


    Yep, exactly. God created more than intellect, and the Church engages the whole person. It’ll be nice when people discover that they’re more than ghosts in machines.

    Father Stephen,

    Of course, I was generously putting words into Dylan’s mouth. He wasn’t Christian, and he wasn’t a fan of the Enlightenment, from what I can tell.

    As an aside, I knew a bartender who was very proud of throwing Dylan out of his bar during the early 80’s. Alas, the bartender was a John Fogerty fan.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    The only thing disappointing about a Dylan concert is that watching him makes me realize how old I am myself. On the other hand, Keith Richards makes me feel young again. The last Dylan concert I attended, he never touched a guitar. You never know with him.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. What does it mean to “experience God”? I think 1 Corinthians 2 is sorely overlooked in thinking about this question:…

  2. Matthew, Regarding the notion of testing the spirits: this is indeed a biblical reference. However when implemented within the very…

  3. Matthew I trust the Lord. Not so much in men. Please forgive me. I appreciate your kindness and comments.

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast