I’ve heard it said more than once that if you want to know what someone’s priorities are, look at the way they spend their money. If most of the money they earn is used for new clothes, holidays, meals in restaurants, regularly changing their car, we can assume that person believes in enjoying themselves in life. They might be one of those people who says: Work hard, play hard. Having earned their money they feel free to spend it on themselves. This is easier for a person who is single but even those in a marriage might spend a lot on themselves. It’s not just a modern phenomenon either. It’s well known that in the past many a man took his Friday pay packet with him to the pub after work and had very little to give to his wife for the necessities of life by the time he weaved his way home on unsteady feet a few hours later.
Money is not the only indicator of priorities in a person’s life. We could also look at how they spend their time. Are they workaholics, never away from the office? Does a hobby take up a large amount of time? Are they hooked on Facebook or Second Life? Do they enjoy a sport or love their garden or always take the opportunity to spend time with family? Unlike with money, there is no way to earn extra time. All of us are allocated 24 hours a day to fit in what we consider essential or important. I suppose we could give up sleep as an unnecessary waste of time but most of us would soon become ill as a result.
In the famous story about Martha and Mary which is the Gospel passage for today, the choice each woman makes about how to spend her time is a cause of domestic friction. In fact, the very idea of making a choice is pretty shocking if we look at it in the context of the culture. Hospitality was, and still is, very important in Middle Eastern societies. Providing the guest with everything he could possibly want was of the utmost priority. That was what was expected of a woman and Martha was doing just what she needed to do in order to provide the correct welcome for Jesus. She had every reason to assume that Mary would also recognise that she should be in the kitchen helping out. Martha might have been confident that in appealing to Jesus she would find he was on her side. However, Jesus was never predictable by the rules of the day, being just as likely to say: ‘You have been told, but I say to you …’
Mary had not only chosen to neglect the tasks expected of a woman in a household receiving guests, she had also chosen to spend her time as only a man was allowed to do according to first-century Judaism. She was sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching, just as a disciple (who would always be male) of a rabbi would do. In the process she risked the disapproval of those who observed her. She was drinking in Jesus’ words in order to learn how to be like him. Every morning Jewish men gave thanks in their prayers that they had not been born a slave, a Gentile or a woman. A saying of the time declared that it was better to burn the Torah than to put it in the hands of a woman. Yet, when Mary chose to spend her time listening to the one who was greater than the Torah, Jesus chose to commend her. He understood where Martha was coming from in her complaint, but he upheld Mary’s choice as ‘the better part’ – she had her priorities right. Martha would have been welcome to join her sister at Jesus’ feet and let the chores wait, had she heard the invitation in Jesus’ words.
Unlike Mary who put listening to God at the top of her priority list, the people of Amos’ day resented the religious observances they had to adhere to as the people of God. Rather than embracing the Sabbath as a time to spend in worship they were drumming their fingers in impatience, counting the hours until the important business of life could start again. Far from the Sabbath being a day of rest it was a day of frustration to be endured. Their priorities were to get on with selling goods and making money. Not only that, they wanted to do their business dishonestly by using false measures. They wanted to sell the dust they swept up as wheat, making money out of something worthless. They remind me of the bakers in France in the 16th to 19th centuries who used to add sawdust, dirt, hay or dung to the flour in order to make it go further and increase their profits.
God had a warning for the people that there were terrible things to come for those who chose not to give his ways priority, who would rather set his words aside than listen to them. He warned that the sun would be hidden at noon making the world dark when it should be light. There would be mourning as for an only son. We know it happened of course. Eventually God’s only Son, the word of God, was silenced and the world was in darkness between noon and 3pm as he died. Then the opportunity to listen to Jesus’ teaching had gone. There was a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.
Mary chose to spend her time wisely in the short period that Jesus was teaching on earth. I wonder if we would have abandoned our tasks in order to sit at Jesus’ feet or would we have done as society demanded, or found something more urgent and important to do? We can still listen to Jesus now through the words recorded for us in the Gospels but we need to take the time to do so. Those skilled in time management say that the way to organise the usage of time is to allocate time to the most important things first. They liken it to putting stones in a jar. When the large stones are put in there are spaces between them. Smaller stones, representing less important matters, are put in and fit in the spaces even though the jar could hold no more large stones. Finally the least important items, represented as sand, are poured in and fill the tiny spaces between the stones. In this way time is correctly allocated.
For those of us who are Christians, one of the big stones in our jar of time should be time spent getting to know Jesus, ‘the image of the invisible God’ as Paul calls him. Like Mary we should sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from him how to be compassionate, loving, tolerant, forgiving, forgetful of wrongs done to us, willing to serve others rather than elevating ourselves. We as a community form the church which is the body of Christ, called to do as he did and to be as he was on earth.
For each of us this week will present us with tasks which have to be done at home and at work. It would be so easy to be Martha. I pray that we may all have the grace to be like Mary whatever the demands of our lives.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor