As the final days of February roll past, anyone whose life is determined by the university calendar is sure to be feeling the pressure of many tasks demanding time and careful attention. At this very moment, some of my students are probably resenting the work they are struggling to do for one of my classes. While I, of course, must continue to demand that my students do their work, I do also recognize that that work is not the greatest good. In fact, it is not good to be so “troubled by many things” that we miss the “one thing” that is “needful.”
This language contrasting the many things and the one thing comes from the gospel story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), which illustrates our primary need as creatures of a loving God. Martha’s “love language” is clearly “acts of service”. All fine and good, but Jesus recognizes the one needful thing in Mary—to love her Savior as she sits at his feet. While the familiar story has theological implications, it also illustrates the philosophical truth of being before doing.
Acts of service always proceed from the heart, and so the love we have for God and one another precedes doing and right action. In the wake of modern materialism, being is often treated as an inert material state. But if God is the source of all being, i.e. Being itself, then being in creatures must be active. The perfect love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is pure act, and by analogy, the creatures of the Triune God share in the active life of the Godhead by virtue of being. In other words, being is good and desirable in itself before any other act of service.
The implications of this truth are evident in the problem of sin. When I confess my sins of commission and omission in church, I should first think of the ways in which I have failed to love God and neighbor. When I sin, I pursue ends which are opposed to the ends for which I was created. I should turn my heart to contemplating the goodness of God and creation to correct this distortion. The law of God is a schoolmaster that teaches the greatest of all commandments—to love God and neighbor.
When I teach, I always try to keep in mind that the great commandment is the proper end of all learning. If I stray from this path, then my efforts will not promote the love of goodness, truth, or beauty in my students. And when I do stray, I ask God to teach me again, for this one thing is needful.