Sermon by Graham Agnew.
I never cease to be amazed how quickly and dramatically priorities can be turned upside down in an instant – totally without warning! As I recall, it was a beautiful morning in Adelaide when I went out to the family room of our home to collect my dad’s empty cup of tea. I approached him I could see he was not well. I said: “Dad, are you OK?”
I shall never forget his words: “I think you’d better get an ambulance…” Yes, my Dad, aged in his mid-60’s, was having a massive heart attack.
I won’t go into all the details except to say within a short space of time my mum and I were sitting in a small waiting room in the cardiac section of a large Adelaide hospital, desperately waiting for news of my dad’s condition. He survived on that occasion, but one of the most striking things I remember is every activity I had planned for that day went out the window: meetings, phone calls and a mass of other activities that I had thought were priorities for the day, suddenly paled into insignificance as my number one priority became that of supporting my mum, comforting my family and praying for my dad.
Like I said, it’s amazing…scary really, when you consider how quickly priorities can change so rapidly.
Priority is a form of the word “prior” – and prior of course means before; ahead of; proceeding. A priority is something that comes before everything else. A priority is a really important thing…that which we place ahead of other things.
There’s a familiar passage in Luke Chapter 10 involving two sisters, Mary and Martha, two close friends of Jesus. The theme of this incident is priorities. Now, there’s a certain quaintness…a certain homeliness about this story. I love the way Luke leads into the story (verse 38): “He came to a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home…”
Wow! What an honour: hosting the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. I mean, you’d want everything to be just right…you’d want to ensure the meal was your best ever – that the place was spick and span! At the same time, you’d want to spend quality time with Jesus – I mean, what an opportunity: a one on one chat with the Master.
Yes, that would be a priority for sure. So, in a very real sense, both Mary and Martha appear to be involved in important activities. True, Martha has the more down to earth, more practical approach to the occasion, while Mary is in a more contemplative mood – her priority in this moment is rather different to her sister Martha.
But, then comes the part that is very hard to deal with: it would seem Jesus is more impressed with Mary’s actions than those of Martha. Here’s his gentle rebuke to Martha: (verse 41) “Martha, Martha! You are worried and troubled over so many things, but just one thing is needed…
Now, remember, this is our Lord’s response to Martha’s plea for him to get Mary into the kitchen. In verse 40 we read “Martha was upset over all the work she had to do so she came and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!”
It’s a reasonable request, so why did Jesus give what seems to be a rather harsh and unfair answer?
In the incident involving Mary and Martha recorded in Luke 10, I think we all resonate with the justice of Martha’s complaint against Mary and I’m sure we’d be much more comfortable with this story with Jesus had responded: “Hey Mary, I think Martha has a point. Why don’t you help her out now and we’ll continue our conversation over dinner…”
But no, Jesus responds to Martha in a way that basically says: “Martha, you’ve missed the whole point of what’s happening here.”
That’s hard for Martha (and us) to hear. I mean, you’d think Jesus might have instantly spotted the beautiful expression here of his understanding of the greatest commandment! On at least two occasions Jesus is recorded as saying the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Come on Jesus: here, in the actions of Martha and Mary we have a classic example of what you’re talking about! Mary is a great example of “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – while Martha is a great example of love your neighbour as you love yourself!
I mean, isn’t this the perfect balance needed for an effective Christian life? An orientation toward practical “others centred” ministry – born out of a close and intimate relationship toward Jesus?” Isn’t this the “one thing” you were talking about Lord?
Well, let’s have a closer look at this notion of the one thing: In the very funny move “City Slickers” released in 1991 (yes, that’s how long ago), a group of guys from the city decide do go on a cattle drive with a bunch of rough cowboys – the leader of whom is a guy called Curly, played by Jack Pallance. Now this little excursion into the country is meant to help these city slickers “find themselves” as they each approach their own form of a mid-life crisis.
At one point, one of these guys (Billy Crystal) says to the very rough and wild Curly: “Your life seems to make sense to you…”
Curly replies: “You city folk worry a lot…you spend 50 weeks getting knots in your rope and you think 2 weeks out here will untie those knots for you. None of you get it.”
It’s at this point we realise whilst Curly is a tough old cowboy, he’s also a close observer of humanity and has some innate wisdom.
He then asks Crystal: “You know what the secret to life is?” “No, what?” asks a very eager Billy Crystal.
Curly replies: “ONE THING – just one thing! You stick to that and everything else don’t mean nothin’.”
“That’s great!” says Crystal, now showing signs of desperation: “but what is that one thing?”
After a long pause, the tough old cowboy quietly replies in his characteristically gravelly voice: “that’s what you’ve got to figure out!”
For the follower of Jesus, figuring out the one thing is achieved in the context of a close and personal relationship with him!
Let’s take a closer look at Jesus’ words to Martha: “Martha, you’re worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed.” Then he adds: “Mary has chosen that one thing and it will not be taken from her.”
Now, at this point, those among us who are more oriented toward the practical, more inclined to serve in tangible ways are perhaps becoming a little uneasy – thinking that this illusive one thing is in fact the more spiritual…more contemplative approach to the faith. You’re asking: What’s happened to the idea of balance? What if my giftings aren’t in intense study of the Bible? What if I’m uneasy about praying in public? What if it’s hard for me to talk about my faith in Christ, preferring to simply live it out?
Well, in response to these questions, I have good news. Both are needed…there is a balance required!
There is overwhelming evidence in the scriptures that following Jesus is a combination of practical ministry and (like Mary) sitting at the feet of Jesus: learning, praying, worshiping…in other words, the two essential components to the greatest commandment.
So why does Jesus talk about the one thing?
Well, I’m essentially a simple man and my approach to the Christian life is simple (without being simplistic). I believe the one thing is our relationship with Jesus…the strength and closeness of our walk with him.
Wait a minute, you’re protesting. Aren’t you being somewhat judgmental in saying Martha had a closer relationship to Jesus, was more pious and devoted than Martha? Not at all! There is absolutely no evidence to suggest there was any difference in the level of their allegiance and devotion to the Lord. But there was something that distinguished them from one another in this particular incident.
You see: the one thing is our relationship with Jesus AND our ability, in his strength, to discern priorities… That’s what made the difference on this occasion. Mary made a choice! Both Mary and Martha were engaged in important activities and both expressed an aspect of the Christian life. But only one showed spiritual discernment in getting her priorities right and that was Mary.
Is there any evidence to suggest Mary never cooked a meal, picked up a tea towel or handled a broom? No there is not. But on this day…this special day when Jesus came to her home IN PERSON she was spiritually aware to the point where she realised listening to him, learning from him – these were to be the focus of her attention at that time. As Jesus said, Mary has chosen that one thing and it will not be taken from her.
Yes, the story of Mary and Martha is essentially about the ability to discern priorities – NOT about the differences in their love for God. In our busy lives, we all face decisions about priorities in an ongoing way: do I go to this social function or attend church? Do I continue reading my book or spend some time reading the Bible? Do I spend endless hours watching television or do I take time to pray? Do I put myself out to help a friend in need or do I sit back and assume someone else is doing it?
These are the critical times when the spiritually aware, mature person knows to give these things priority over everything else! Father, sharpen our ability to discern what is needed in any situation and give us the faith and courage to respond accordingly.