Sibling rivalries are big in the Bible. There’s Cain and Abel, Joseph and his brothers, the Prodigal Son and the brother who stayed home. It’s a constant theme. And a lot of the time it’s about resentment, and about which sibling is doing the work, and about which isn’t doing anything worthwhile. In other words, the Bible is a lot like real life.
The story we read today from the Gospel is about another sibling rivalry. Jesus is visiting the home of two sisters; Mary and Martha. And Martha is well named, because she is like the Biblical Martha Stewart. She is in the kitchen cooking and cleaning and trying to make sure that everything goes exactly right. And she is stressed out and looking for help.
And, as it turns out, Martha has this sister named Mary. And Mary isn’t helping. She’s not even in the kitchen. Instead, Mary is sitting down, at Jesus’ feet, just listening to him speak.
Finally Martha has enough. She says, “Jesus, tell her to get in the kitchen and help me.” That sounds fair enough to me, but Jesus has a surprising answer: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
In other words: back off Martha…Mary got this one right.
It’s easy to sympathize with Martha. No one likes to be doing all the work while someone else gets to just sit down and relax. It reminds me of a story I heard once about a college mission trip. A bunch of students traveled to a reservation in order to help a tribe to rebuild their community center. And everyday they got up on ladders, and painted walls, and worked on the roof.
But there was one student who didn’t. Every day while all the others were working away, he was down playing with all the kids on the reservation. He taught them games, had fun with them, and entertained them. And all the others in the group were so frustrated with him, the same way Martha was with Mary.
And I probably would have been too. But the mistake here is to think that Martha is the only one doing anything of value, and that Mary is doing nothing. The mistake is to confuse being busy with having your priorities in the right place.
Now, let me stop here to say that I can sympathize with Martha. When I was first engaged, Heidi made an observation. ”Do you know,” she asked, “that you never stop doing something?” At the time it was around 10pm, and we were watching a movie together while I sat with my laptop, typing away at some work.
I didn’t know what she was talking about at first, but slowly I realized how addicted I was to being busy. Like, instead of being fully present in a conversation, I’d be washing the dishes too. Or instead of making sure that I was taking Monday as my sabbath day, I was returning calls that could have waited until Tuesday. Somehow I had convinced myself that not multi-tasking was a waste of time. To not be busy was some sort of sin in my mind.
Now, you might get that. Maybe you have several to-do lists and full calendars. You might feel like you never reach the end of what you are supposed to do. That’s not uncommon. And as a culture we are passing it on to our kids. Even they have become over scheduled. Productivity matters more than ever, and we have become a generation of Marthas. It’s not hard to imagine that most of us would have gone out to Jesus and said, “hey…tell my sister to stop doing nothing and get to work.”
And, in the end, there’s nothing wrong with hard work. But there is something wrong with having skewed priorities.
Here’s what Martha was missing: Jesus, God incarnate, was literally in her living room. And she is too busy doing dishes to stop and notice. He is teaching, but she is entertaining. He is talking about the greatest work one can do, and she just can’t stop working.
But that’s not all that different from us. Jesus is often a lot closer to us than we realize. Though we are wrapped up in the busy-ness of life, God is around us, waiting to show us something more. Waiting to spend some time with us. And sometimes that means we have to put down the to-do list, and just stop.
Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with hard work, but sometimes I think we use it to avoid focusing on what matters. A lot of times I’ll meet people who have a sense of faith or a sense of belief and they’ll tell me, sort of apologize, for why they’ve never been to church. And, without provocation, they’ll give me a long list of reasons and tell me, “you have no idea how busy I am. I wish I could make it, but I don’t have time.”
And that’s okay…I’m not mad at them or judging them.
But mostly, I usually just feel bad for them. Because usually they are coming to talk to me when something in their life has gone wrong, and they are finding that they don’t have the spiritual community they need or the prayer life they want or sense of comfort that faith can give to you.
Something bad is happening and prayers are like a Hail Mary pass, sent down the line to Jesus, a wide receiver you vaguely know, but haven’t really ever spent any time with. And all of a sudden, all those things that kept us too busy to spend some time with God, don’t feel all that important at all. And that’s when you know that maybe your priorities have been a bit out of whack. If you’re lucky, you figure it out before it’s too late.
It’s a challenge, though. And that’s why sometimes we need to be conscious of giving ourselves the time and the space we need to connect with God. There’s a word you might have heard of before: “sabbath”. A few generations back Sunday was treated by Christians as a time when the work stopped, and you focused your attention on God. Stores were closed, youth soccer games weren’t played, and you took the time to be with family and with God. In some religious communities, such as the Orthodox Jewish community, this still happens, though on Friday and Saturday.
That’s what Mary was doing. She was setting aside time for God. She was having Sabbath. And Sabbath isn’t about doing nothing. Sabbath is about being deliberate about what we do, and saying that cultivating a relationship with God comes first on our list of priorities. Mary got that. And she was saying, “tonight the dishes can wait…Jesus is in my house, and how often does that happen”.
Giving yourself Sabbath time can be a wonderful tool because it can help you to look at what you are trying to fill that God-sized hole in your heart with, and it can get you to stop filling it with stuff that really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be on Sundays, it doesn’t even have to be a day. It’s just about giving yourself some space, maybe every day, to connect with what really matters. It’s about saying that God doesn’t get squeezed in at the end of the day, but that your relationship with God shapes the day instead. It’s about getting your priorities straight.
When I was a hospital chaplain, my supervisor told us a story about a college professor once. The professor stood in front of a class with a big Mason jar. And next to it he had some golf balls, a bunch of ball bearings, and some sand. And he gave his class what at first seemed like an easy assignment: put them all in the jar, and put the top on.
It was, of course, harder than it looked. They tried putting in the sand first, and then the ball bearings. They tried to mix them all together. They tried to squish everything in. It never worked.
The professor took his turn. He put the golf balls in first. Then he put the ball bearings in, and they trickled down to fill the space around the golf balls. And finally he poured in the sand, and had plenty of room to put on the top.
He explained to his students that life was a lot like that Mason jar: we only have limited space, and we have to make room for the things that matter first. He explained that the golf balls represented the big things in our life: faith, family, and what matters most. The ball bearings were things like work and other necessities. And the sand; that was the stuff that doesn’t really matter. He told his students that only by placing the things that matter the most in that jar first would they ever make it all fit. The things that matter define the space. The sand just fills the spaces.
The same is true for us. When we put the things that matter the most first in our lives, things like our relationship with God, we find ourselves less and less defined by the meaningless things.
I’ll close with this. At the beginning I told you that story about the college group that went to serve on a reservation, and the one guy who never seemed to be doing any of the work. On the last night, the tribe held an event to thank them for all they had done. And they were incredibly appreciative of the new community center. But then, all of the children, and even the parents, began to come up to that one young man who had never seemed to be doing anything except play with the kids. And they put their hands on him and blessed him. And it became clear to his classmates that he had been doing something extraordinary during his time there, and that in the end, that is what the tribe would remember. His priorities were in order, he was there to serve, and he was the one who left with a blessing
That’s who I think all Christians want to be in the end: the ones who gets their priorities straight, and who leave with a blessing. And the only way for sure that I know how to do that, is to turn to God before all else. Amen.