Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come.X.
(1) After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also.—Some MSS. of importance give “seventy-two,” but the evidence preponderates in favour of the reading “seventy.” The number had a threefold significance. (1) Seventy elders had been appointed by Moses to help him in his work of teaching and judging the people (Numbers 11:16), and to these the spirit of prophecy had been given that they might bear the burden with him. In appointing the Seventy our Lord revived, as it were, the order or “school” of prophets which had been so long extinct. The existence of such men in every Church is implied in well-nigh every Epistle (e.g., Acts 13:1; Acts 15:32; 1Corinthians 12:28; 1Corinthians 14:29; 1Thessalonians 5:20), and the fact that St. Paul and others join together the “Apostles and Prophets” as having been jointly the foundation on which the Church was built (Ephesians 2:20; Ephesians 3:5; Ephesians 4:11; 2Peter 3:2), makes it probable that the latter words, no less than the former, pointed in the first instance to a known and definite body. The Seventy presented such a body. They, though not sharers in the special authority and functions of the Twelve, were yet endowed with like prophetic powers, and the mysteries of the kingdom were revealed to them (Luke 10:21). (2) As the Sanhedrin or great Council of scribes and priests and elders consisted of seventy members besides the president, the number having been fixed on the assumption that they were the successors of those whom Moses had chosen, our Lord’s choice of the number could hardly fail to suggest the thought that the seventy disciples were placed by Him in a position of direct contrast with the existing Council, as an assembly guided, not by the traditions of men, but by direct inspiration. (3) But the number seventy had come to have another symbolical significance which could not fail to have a special interest. Partly by a rough reckoning of the names of the nations in Genesis 10, partly on account of the mystical completeness of the number itself, seventy had come to be the representative number of all the nations of the world; and so, in the Feast of Tabernacles, which in any harmonistic arrangement of the Gospel narrative must have almost immediately preceded the mission of the Seventy (see Note on John 7:2), a great sacrifice of seventy oxen was offered as on behalf of all the non-Israelite members of the great family of mankind (Lightfoot, Hor. Hebr. in Joann. 7). Bearing this in mind, and remembering the words that our Lord had spoken during that feast as to the “other sheep, not of that fold” (John 10:16), which He had come to gather, we may see in what is here recorded a step full of meaning, a distinct and formal witness of the future universality of the Church of Christ. The omission, in the charge addressed to them, of the command given to the Twelve against entering into the way of the Gentiles or any city of the Samaritans (Matthew 10:5) is on this view full of interest.
The question, of course, occurs to us how it was that such a mission should have been omitted by St. Matthew and St. Mark. To this, only partial answers can be given. (1) The mission belonged to the last period of our Lord’s ministry, where their records are comparatively scanty, and was confined to the region, apparently of Peræa and Judæa, which He was then about to visit. (2) It was one in which, from the nature of the case, the Twelve were not sharers, and which, therefore, naturally came to occupy a less prominent place in the recollections of those from whom the narratives of the first two Gospels were primarily derived.
Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest.(2) The harvest truly is great.—See Note on Matthew 9:37. The verses that follow contain, as might have been expected from the analogous circumstances, much in common with those spoken on the mission of the Twelve. We have here, as in the sermons on the Mount and on the Plain, an example of our Lord’s repeating the expression of the same thoughts in nearly the same language.
Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves.(3) As lambs among wolves.—See Note on Matthew 10:16.
Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way.(4) Carry neither purse, nor scrip.—See Notes on Matthew 10:9-10; Mark 6:8.
And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house.(5-7) Peace be to this house.—See Notes on Matthew 10:12-13. St. Luke gives, what is only implied in St. Matthew, the very form of the salutation.
And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house.(7) And in the same house remain.—See Note on Matthew 10:11.
The labourer is worthy of his hire.—See Note on Matthew 10:10. The exact reproduction of the words by St. Paul in 1Timothy 5:18, as a citation from “the Scripture,”’ is every way interesting. The Apostle could scarcely have failed to have become acquainted, during his long companionship with St. Luke, with the materials which the Evangelist was collecting for his great work. We can hardly doubt, accordingly, that he quotes this as one of the sayings of the Lord Jesus, as he quotes another in Acts 20:35, and clothes it with the same authority as the older Scripture. On this assumption, the Gospel of St. Luke must have been, in part, at least, written and recognised at the time when the Pastoral Epistles were written.
And into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you:(8) Eat such things as are set before you.—The precise form of the precept is peculiar to St. Luke, but the spirit is the same as that of the words which had been spoken to the Twelve. The Evangelist preachers were to accept whatever was provided for them by a willing host, and to avoid even the appearance of caring for outward comforts.
And heal the sick that are therein, and say unto them, The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.(9) The kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.—Here again the form of the words is peculiar to St. Luke. This was to be the burden of those who, as preachers, were, in the strictest sense, the heralds of the great King.
But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say,(10, 11) Into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not.—See Notes on Matthew 10:13.
Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.(11) Be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.—There is something very solemnly impressive in the fact that this is the message to be uttered alike to the believing and the unbelieving. Now, as of old, the prophets of the Lord had to utter their proclamation, whether men would hear or whether they would forbear (Ezekiel 2:7).
But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city.(12) It shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom.—See Note on Matthew 10:15.
Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon, which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.(13-16) Woe unto thee, Chorazin!—See Notes on Matthew 11:21, where the words appear as spoken at an earlier period. We have again to choose between the two alternative views, (1) that the words were spoken but once, and floated in men’s memories without any very definite note of time or place, and were wrongly placed by one, or, possibly, by both Evangelists; or (2) that they were repeated on different occasions. The latter seems, on the whole, by far the more probable.
He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me.(16) He that heareth you heareth me.—See Note on Matthew 10:40. Another fragment of our Lord’s teaching meets us under the same conditions as before.
And the seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name.(17) And the seventy returned again with joy.—It is obvious from the immediate sequence of the two facts that the mission of the Seventy was, as stated above, confined within narrow limits of space and time.
Lord, even the devils are subject unto us.—Better, the demons. The tone in which the disciples speak is that of a joyful surprise. They had not looked for such great and immediate results. They had thought that the power to cast out demons had been confined to our Lord’s immediate action or to that of the Twelve, and they found that they too possessed the power to rescue the spirits of men from thraldom. With them, as with others, the consciousness of a new power was attended with a new pleasure, in this case, with that of high spiritual exultation.
And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.(18) I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.—The tense of the first Greek verb implies continuous action: I was beholding Satan as he fell . . . While they were working their Master had been following them in spirit, gazing, as it were, on each stage of their victorious conflict. Their triumph over the demons was the beginning and the earnest of a final conquest over Satan as “the prince of the demons.” There may, possibly, be a reference to the belief then beginning to be current among the Jews as to the fall of Satan after his creation; but the primary meaning of our Lord’s words is that he was now dethroned from his usurped dominion in the “high places” (comp. Ephesians 6:12), which symbolised the spiritual region of the soul and mind of man. The imagery reappears in a developed form in Revelation 12:9.
Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.(19) Behold, I give unto you . . .—The better MSS. have, “I have given,” as of something already bestowed in its completeness. In the power to “tread on serpents and scorpions,” we have a manifest reference to the words of Psalm 91:13. Those words stand in closest sequence with the promise which had been wrested from its true meaning by the Tempter in the great struggle in the wilderness; and it is not over-bold to think that they were connected with our Lord’s memories of that time, and especially of the fact indicated by St. Mark’s statement (Mark 1:13) that He “was with the wild beasts.” Now, through resistance to the Temptation, there had come the victory which if He had then yielded, never would have been won. Of a literal fulfilment of the words, St. Paul’s escape from the viper at Melita (Acts 28:3) is the only recorded instance; but the parallelism between this promise and that of Psalm 91:13 shows that the literal meaning falls into the background, that the serpent and the scorpion are symbols of spiritual powers of evil. A merely literal interpretation lands us in two serious difficulties: (1) that it represents the treading on serpents as a greater work than casting out demons; and (2) that it implies that serpents and scorpions, as such, are not part of God’s creation, but belong to the power of the Evil One. So far as we think of a literal fulfilment at all, it can only be as the symbol and earnest of the spiritual. The real kernel of the promise lies in the last words, “Nothing shall by any means hurt you,” and these find their interpretation in the thought that “nothing shall separate us from the love of God,” and that “all things work together for good to those that love Him” (Romans 8:39; Romans 8:28).
Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.(20) Notwithstanding in this rejoice not.—Above all exercise of power was the consciousness of the divine life, the feeling that they had a Father in heaven who had, to speak after the manner of men, registered their names as citizens of His kingdom. That was the great blessing for them, and for all believing souls after them. The words leave open the question whether that registration conferred a title which they could not forfeit, and the current language of the Old Testament—the prayer of Moses, “Blot me out of Thy book” (Exodus 32:32), the warnings of Exodus 32:33, Deuteronomy 9:14; Deuteronomy 29:20—would suggest the thought that even here the joy was to be tempered with fear and trembling. The reappearance of a like promise in Revelation 3:5 as the reward of obedience, and therefore conditioned by it, no less than the general tenor of the teaching of the Epistles (1Corinthians 9:27; Galatians 2:21; 2Peter 1:10), confirms this interpretation. It may be noted (1) that the better MSS. omit the word “rather,” and introduce the second clause abruptly—“Rejoice that your names are written . . .;” and (2), as implied above, that the root-thought of the image is that of a king taking the census of those who are citizens of his kingdom, as distinguished from aliens and foreigners. In Psalm 87:4-5, we have a memorable instance at once of the literal fact and of its spiritual application.
In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit, and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes: even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.(21, 22) in that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit.—The words that follow are found also in Matthew 11:25-27 (see Notes on those verses), but the opening clause that introduces them is peculiar to St. Luke, and is noticeable as the one instance where the word “rejoiced,” which appears in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47), is used of our Lord’s human feeling of exultation. It indicates what one may call the enthusiasm of spiritual joy more than any other synonym, and conveys the impression that the disciples must have noticed something exceptional in their Lord’s look and manner. The verbal agreement with St. Matthew indicates that both the Evangelists must have drawn from a common source, documentary or oral.
All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him.(22) All things are delivered to me.—The marginal reading, which prefixes “And turning to His disciples” to this verse instead of the next, can hardly be regarded as more than a transcriber’s error.
And he turned him unto his disciples, and said privately, Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see:(23-24) Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see . . .—Another instance of repeated words, St. Matthew reporting them as spoken after the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:16. See Note on that verse).
For I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.(24) Many prophets and kings. . . .—There is a slight verbal difference here as compared with St. Matthew’s report, which gives “prophets and righteous men.”
And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?(25) And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up.—On the word “lawyer” and its difference from the more generic “scribe,” see Note on Matthew 22:35. Here, as there, the “tempting” does not necessarily imply hostile purpose. It was simply a test-question to see if the new Teacher was sound in His view of the ethical obligations of the Law.
The question, though the same as that of the young man in Matthew 19:16, is not asked in the same tone. There it was asked by one anxiously seeking to inherit eternal life. Here there is a certain tone of self-conscious superiority, which required a different treatment. As the method of Socrates was to make men conscious of their ignorance of the true meaning of words which they repeated glibly, so here our Lord parries the question by another, makes him repeat his own formulated answer—an answer true and divine itself, identical with that which our Lord gave Himself (Matthew 22:37)—and then teaches him how little he had realised its depth and fulness. The commandment was “exceeding broad” above all that the teacher of Israel had imagined.
And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.(28) Thou hast answered right.—The acceptance of the lawyer’s answer as theoretically true was part of the method of our Lord’s teaching. The words that followed, “This do, and thou shalt live,” were those of a Prophet who knew what was in the man, and read the secrets of his heart, and saw how little love was to be found there. In the command “This do . . . ,” however, our Lord does something more than accommodate Himself to the legal point of view. Love was really life, at once its source and its manifestation, if only the love were true, and the test of its being true was action.
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?(29) But he, willing to justify himself . . .—The question implied a conscience half-awakened and uneasy. It is characteristic that no doubt seems to cross his mind as to his love of God. There he felt that he was safe. But there were misgivings as to the second commandment, and, as if feeling that there had been a tone of rebuke in our Lord’s answer, he vindicates himself by asking the question, “Who is my neighbour?” No one, he thinks, could accuse him of neglecting his duties to those who lived in the same village, attended the same synagogue, who were Pharisees like himself, or even Israelites.
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.(30) A certain man went down.—Better, was going down. We enter here upon the first of a series of parables, which differ from those in St. Matthew in having more the character of actual human histories, illustrating a truth, rather than mere similitudes (“parables” in the usual sense of the word) composed for the purpose of illustration. There is obviously no reason why we should not believe them to have been (as in one case the mention of a proper name seems to imply, Lazarus, in Luke 16:20) statements of facts that had actually happened, and which had come under our Lord’s observation as He travelled on His work of preaching the gospel of the Kingdom.
From Jerusalem to Jericho.—The journey was one of about twenty-one miles, for the most part through a rocky and desert country, with caves that were then haunted by bands of robbers, as they have been, more or less, in later times by predatory Arabs. In Jerome’s time it was known as the “red” or the “bloody” way, in consequence of the frequency of such crimes.
Fell among thieves.—Better, robbers, as elsewhere.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.(31) By chance. . . .—The passage is the only one in the New Testament in which the phrase occurs. Our Lord seems to use it as with a touch of what we have elsewhere termed irony. It seemed so casual, as such opportunities always do to men who neglect them, and yet it was, in the purpose of God, the test-moment of each man’s character and life.
There came down.—Better, as before, there was going down.
A certain priest.—Jericho was at this time a priestly city, and so the journey of the priest from Jerusalem, as if returning from his week of sacerdotal offices there, has a touch of vivid naturalness. He, too, like the questioner, had been doing his duty to God, according to his measure of that duty.
Passed by on the other side.—The priest shrank, it might be, (1) from the trouble and peril of meddling with a man whom robbers had just attacked, and (2) from the fear of incurring a ceremonial defilement by coming into contact with what might possibly be a corpse before he reached it. He accordingly “passed by on the other side,” not of the road only, but of the ravine through which the road passed.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.(32) Likewise a Levite.—The passage is memorable as the only mention of Levites in the Gospels. He is represented as at once better and worse than the priest—better in that he does not altogether turn aside, but “comes” and looks; worse in that his second thoughts are at variance with his first, and prevail against them. If he has more light, he also sins more against it. He, too, may have been coming, like the priest, from his week of service in the Temple.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,(33) A certain Samaritan.—For the chief facts connected with the Samaritans and their relation to the Jews, see Note on Luke 9:52. There is something noticeable in the change of word. It was not likely that the hated alien should be coming down from Jerusalem. His journey would probably be to, or from, Bethel and Gerizim. He was not, as the others were, near a home to which they might have taken the wounded sufferer. Here there is a true human feeling in one who outwardly was involved in heresy and schism, and our Lord singles that out as infinitely preferable to the form of godliness without its power.
And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.(34) And went to him.—Every detail is in harmony with the tender pity described in the previous verse. All fear of risk from robbers, or from the police of Rome, who might take him for a robber, is put aside; the “oil and wine,” which had been provided for personal refreshment, are freely given to be used, according to the primitive surgery of the time, the latter for cleansing the wounds, the former for soothing inflammation. His own beast (better, ass, as the word is translated in Matthew 21:5; 2Peter 2:16) is given up, and he goes on foot; he takes the wounded man to an inn, and there provides for him.
To an inn.—The word is not the same as that in Luke 2:7, and implies the Western type of hostelry, where the landlord provides for his guests, while in the earlier passage we have the Eastern caravanserai, where the guests simply find shelter, and arrange their meals for themselves.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.(35) Two pence—i.e., two denarii, according to Matthew 20:2 the average wages of a labourer for two days; or, taking the estimate of Mark 6:37, enough for a meal of twenty-five men. It was therefore a sufficient and liberal provision for all probable contingencies. This, however, was not, in the Samaritan’s judgment, enough, and he gave a carte blanche for whatever else might be required.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?(36) Which now of these three . . .?—There is a certain subtle discernment in the form of the question. The point under discussion was as to whom the Jew should look on as his neighbour. It is answered indirectly by the narrative, which showed who had proved himself a neighbour to the Jew. The Samaritan had shown himself a better interpreter of the commandment than the orthodox scribe. He had recognised a neighbour even in the Jew. The Jew therefore should recognise a neighbour even in the Samaritan. From the human point of view there is something noble in the manner in which our Lord thus singles out the Samaritan as a type of excellence, after His own recent repulse (Luke 9:53) by men of the same race; something also courageous in His doing so after He had been recently reproached as being Himself a Samaritan (John 8:48). It may be noted that His journey, “as it were in secret” (John 7:10), to the Feast of Tabernacles, must have probably led Him through Samaria, and that in all probability He must have spent the first day of the Feast in that country. (See Note on John 8:48.)
And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.(37) Go, and do thou likewise.—This was the practical, though not the formal, answer to the question of the lawyer. If he acted in the spirit of the Samaritan, he would need no “nicely-calculated less or more” of casuistic distinctions as to who was and who was not his neighbour. Fellowship in the same human nature, and any kind of even passing contact, were enough to constitute a ground for neighbourly kindness. Of such a question it may be said, Solvitur amando. We love, and the problem presents no difficulty.
Nothing should lead us away from recognising this as the main lesson of the parable. But there is another application of it which, within limits, is legitimate enough as a development of thought, and which has commended itself to so many devout minds, both in ancient and modern times, that it at least deserves a notice. Christ Himself, it is said, is the great pattern of a wide, universal love for man as man, acting out the lesson which the parable teaches in its highest form. May we not think of Him as shadowed forth in the good Samaritan, as accepting, in that sense, the name which had been flung at Him in scorn? Starting from this thought, the circumstances fit in with a strange aptness. The traveller stands as representing mankind at large. The journey is from Jerusalem, the heavenly city, the paradise of man’s first estate, to Jericho, the evil and accursed city (Joshua 6:17), the sin into which man entered by yielding to temptation. The robbers are the powers of evil, who strip him of his robe of innocence and purity, who smite him sore, and leave him, as regards his higher life, half-dead. The priest and the Levite represent the Law in its sacrificial and ceremonial aspects, and they have no power to relieve or rescue. The Christ comes and helps where they have failed. The beast on which He rides is the human nature in which the Word dwelt, and it is upon that humanity of His that He bids us rest for comfort and support. The inn represents the visible Church of Christ, and the host its pastors and teachers; even the two pence, perhaps, the ordinances and means of grace committed to the Church. There is an obvious risk, in all such application, of an element that is fantastic and unreal; but the main line of parallelism seems to commend itself, if not to the reason, at least to the imagination of the devout interpreter.
Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.(38) He entered into a certain village.—The identity of the two names that follow, and, we may add, of the characters connected with the names, leaves hardly room for doubt that the village thus spoken of was Bethany. (See Note on Matthew 21:1.) St. Luke’s reason for not giving the name is probably connected with the singular reticence of the first three Gospels as to the family of Lazarus. St. Matthew (Matthew 26:7) and St. Mark (Mark 14:3) narrate the anointing, which we learn from John 12:3 to have been the act of Mary, but suppress her name. St. Luke gives, in this section, a characteristic anecdote of the two sisters, but suppresses the name of the village in which they lived. None of the first three Gospels name Lazarus, though there seems some reason to believe that the first two narrate a fact in which he took a prominent part (see Note on Matthew 19:16), and that the third gives the name with a special reference to him. (See Note on Luke 16:20.) A probable explanation is that, both on spiritual and perhaps social grounds, reticence as to the family of Bethany was, for a time, generally maintained among the disciples of Jerusalem, and that St. Luke, coming at a later period, and finding his way, as a physician, into the company of devout women, named one fact that seemed of special interest. (See Introduction, and Note on chap Luke 8:1.)
Martha.—The name does not appear in the Old Testament, and is Aramaic rather than Hebrew. It has a point of contact with secular history in having been borne by the Syrian prophetess who accompanied the Roman general, Marius, in his Numidian campaigns. Its meaning, as the feminine of Maran (= Lord), and therefore equivalent to the Greek Kyria, suggests the possible identity of the sister of Lazarus with the elect Kyria (or elect Lady), to whom St. John addressed his second Epistle. (See Note on 2John 1:1.)
And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.(39) A sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet.—The better MSS. give, “at the Lord’s feet.” Few readers can fail to notice the identity of character here and in the entirely independent narratives of John 11, 12. There also Martha is active (John 11:20) and conspicuous in serving (John 12:2); Mary, meditative and emotional, pouring her whole soul into one act of love (John 11:31; John 12:3).
But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.(40) Martha was cumbered.—Literally, was distracted; drawn hither and thither by conflicting cares.
About much serving.—We may probably infer from this that our Lord had been invited as an honoured guest, and that Mary had been asked to meet Him; and, so far, the narrative agrees with what is suggested by the narrative of John 11 as to the social position of the household at Bethany. The use of a like word in Luke 12:42 suggests that this also may have passed from the abstract to the concrete sense, and have been used for a household of many servants as well as for the act of serving.
Came to him.—The Greek word implies something like a hasty movement to interrupt the calm tenor of the Lord’s discourse. The hasty vehement complaint that follows is quite in keeping with this.
That she help me.—More literally, that she join in helping.
And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:(41) And Jesus answered.—The better MSS. give, “And the Lord answered.” (See Note on Luke 7:13.)
Martha, Martha.—We note a special tenderness of reproof in the two-fold utterance of the name, of which this and the like iteration of “Simon, Simon,” in Luke 22:31, are the only examples in our Lord’s recorded utterances during His earthly ministry. (Comp. “Saul, Saul,” in Acts 9:4.)
Thou art careful.—The verb is the same as the “take thought” of Matthew 6:25, and throws light upon the meaning of that phrase.
But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.(42) But one thing is needful.—Some of the better MSS. present a singular various-reading, There is need of few things, or of one only. It is obvious that this might be taken either literally or spiritually. They might mean (1) that He who spoke, and the others who were coming, needed not the many things about which Martha was troubled, but a few only, or even but a single dish, to supply their wants; or (2) that the true life of men needed but a few things, such as faith, obedience, the fear of God, or even but one only, the devout and intent love which Mary was then showing. The latter interpretation is clearly most in harmony with our Lord’s usual teaching, though the former has something like a parallel in the teaching of Luke 10:7 of this very chapter. It is not improbable that our Lord designedly used words which had an outer and an inner meaning, the latter intended chiefly for those who “had ears to hear.” There is a singular coincidence between the words here spoken to Martha and those addressed to the young ruler (“one thing thou lackest”), whom we have seen reason to identify with her brother. (See Note on Matthew 19:16.) The omission of “few things” in the received text, may have originated in the wish to give an exclusive prominence to the higher meaning.
Mary hath chosen that good part.—The Greek noun is very nearly the same as that which the younger son, in Luke 15:12, uses for “the portion of goods,” the good part or portion here being nothing less than the eternal life which is the gift of God. Here too we may trace something approaching to a half-playful mingling of the higher and lower meanings of the word which was used in the Greek version of the Old Testament at once for Benjamin’s mess, i.e., portion of food (Genesis 43:34), and for God as the “portion” of His people (Psalm 73:26). Even on the assumption that our Lord spoke in Aramaic, and not in Greek, a like play upon the word would have been equally possible.
The two sisters have come to be regarded as the representatives respectively of the active and the contemplative forms of the religious life, and there is, of course, a certain measure of truth in this view. On the other hand, however, it must be remembered that Martha’s activity, with its manifold distractions, was not Christian activity, and that Mary’s contemplation passed, when the time came for it, as in John 12:3, into full and intense activity. The contrast is rather that between singleness of heart and the character which St. James describes as “double-minded” (James 1:8), i.e., divided in its affections.