Hymn of the Month: One Thing’s Needful

The hymn "One Thing's Needful," written by Johann Heinrich Schroder and translated into English by Frances E. Cox, is the Hymn of the Day for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost in the Church Year. Adam Krieger's tune makes it the only hymn in Lutheran Service Book that changes meters in the middle of the hymn.

The hymn's title is appropriate; in its five stanzas, we hear of how Christ is the one thing needful for the Christian. Let's take a closer look at each of the stanzas:

Stanza One

One thing's needful; Lord this treasure

Teach me highly to regard.

All else, though it first give pleasure,

Is a yoke that presses hard!

Beneath it the heart is still fretting and striving,

No true, lasting happiness ever deriving.

This one thing is needful; all others are vain—

I count all but loss that I Christ may obtain!

The key passage in this stanza is Philippians 3:7–8, where Paul writes, "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ."

No matter what pleasure our life may bring, whether it be riches, fame, security, or more, the worth of Christ far surpasses it. At the same time, if our life is full of fretting and striving, without any appearance of blessing, the promise of Christ is still for us.

The treasure Christ gives us puts away both our worries and riches and replaces them with blessings and forgiveness. He provides the one thing needful in the words of Holy Scripture, in Absolution from our pastors, and by means of the blessed Sacraments.

Stanza Two

How were Mary's thoughts devoted

Her eternal joy to find

As intent each word she noted,

At her Savior's feet reclined!

How kindled her heart, how devout was its feeling,

While hearing the lessons that Christ was revealing!

All earthly concerns she forgot for her Lord

And found her contentment in hearing His Word.

Stanza two comes straight from Luke 10:38–42, the Gospel reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: "Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to His teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to Him and said, 'Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.' But the Lord answered her, 'Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.'"

In this story, Martha's desire to serve her Lord is not misplaced. Service is certainly a godly endeavor; we are called to serve our neighbors. Nevertheless, we should be careful to never let earthly concerns distract us from receiving the gifts through which Christ freely serves us.

Once again, these gifts are the one thing needful. Mary received the gifts of God's words, wherein she found joy and contentment. Every time we hear Scripture, and especially when it's read aloud from the lectern or pulpit on Sunday morning, we have the opportunity to find joy and peace in the lessons and grace that Christ reveals to us.

Stanza Three

Wisdom's highest, noblest treasure,

Jesus, is revealed in You.

Let me find in You my pleasure,

And my wayward will subdue,

Humility there and simplicity reigning,

In paths of true wisdom my steps ever training.

If I learn from Jesus this knowledge divine,

The blessing of heavenly wisdom is mine.

What Jesus opens to us in the Scriptures, and what He opened to Mary, is a heavenly, divine wisdom. It isn't the wisdom of the world; it is a wisdom wherein God the Father humbles Himself in the form of His Son, who comes to serve sinners on earth.

Paul writes in one of his letters to the Corinthians that this wisdom often is a stumbling block to the world. The wisdom of the cross is not the wisdom of kings and earthly power. It contains the humility of Christ and the simplicity of faith. This is what Jesus teaches us, and it is the highest and noblest treasure.

Stanza Four

Nothing have I, Christ, to offer,

You alone, my highest good.

Nothing have I, Lord, to proffer

But Your crimson-colored blood.

Your death on the cross has death wholly defeated

And thereby my righteousness fully completed;

Salvation's white raiments I there did obtain,

And in them in glory with You I shall reign.

Stanza four invokes Hebrews 9:14: "How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God."

While Martha's commitment to hospitality to Jesus was generous, what Jesus had to offer Mary (and all of us!) was much more valuable. Our good works and service to our neighbor are certainly for their good. But ultimately, we have no good works or service to offer Christ. 

Scripture tells us our good works are like filthy rags compared to the saving work on the cross Christ has done for us. Because of that, our filthy rags are replaced with salvation's white raiments, and we are clothed with Christ. 

Stanza Five

Therefore You alone, my Savior,

Shall be all in all to me;

Search my heart and my behavior,

Root out all hypocrisy.

Through all my life's pilgrimage, guard and uphold me,

In loving forgiveness, O Jesus, enfold me.

This one thing is needful; all others are vain—

I count all but loss that I Christ may obtain!

Stanza five encapsulates the narrative of the entire hymn from the first four stanzas. Christ serves us Himself, and we are forgiven. This forgiveness is transformational; it guards and upholds our life, and it conforms our heart and behavior to Christ.

The final stanza ends as the first one did: "This one thing is needful." It serves as a closing reminder that throughout our entire life, from beginning to end, our all in all—Christ—will forever provide us the highest good: Himself.

Read more about hymns on the CPH Worship blog:
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Written by

Nathan Grime

Nathan Grime is from Fort Wayne, Indiana. He is a 2020 graduate of Hillsdale College, where he studied rhetoric, public address, and journalism. Nathan is the fifth and sixth grade teacher at Our Savior Lutheran School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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