Seizing upon the Essential
These words, you will remember, are taken from the brief description of the well-known scene in the home of Martha and Mary at Bethany. And few episodes, even in the Gospel narrative, are more familiar to us than this. What wonderful artists the sacred writers are! They know how to paint with just the few absolutely essential and perfectly correct strokes. There is not one too many, and not one is out of place. Here we have a home, a scene in that home, two characters, and a wealth of teaching from the Lord Jesus, all sketched in and made to live before our eyes and in our memories within the space of just five verses. What a rebuke to our prolixity!
We might have taken a whole chapter to describe what is here told in twenty lines, and we should probably have left the reader with a far less vivid and a far less correct impression. The very form of the narrative teaches us the chief lesson it contains—the importance of seizing upon the essential, and how comparatively few of the things we are apt to consider necessary really are so. It is upon choosing the really essential things in life, and in laying stress upon these, that true welfare depends.
A Divided Mind
How clearly, how vividly we see Martha, the good-hearted, bustling, over-anxious mistress and very-much-manager of the household! She is so very busy about so very many things; and all the time she is firmly convinced in her own mind that all she does and all she would provide is absolutely necessary. Not one of all this multitude of things must be wanting. Custom, and her own reputation in her own eyes and among her neighbors, demand them ail. The amount of mental and physical energy which she consumed in providing and preparing and arranging the “many things” which she deemed necessary, she probably never computed, nor did she stay for a moment to consider whether she had forgotten one or two things which in intrinsic worth might be of far greater value than the sum total of all the other things about which she was busying herself. Her mind was too divided to think clearly: part of it was running on this thing and part on that, and yet another part on something else; and her bodily movements were a reflection of her mental ones. As we say, she was all the time in a bustle, running here and there, anxious, distracted, worried; and because she was so, she was much inclined to blame others, even the Lord Jesus, who were really guiltless of the cause of her unhappiness.
Contrast her with her sister Mary, to whom the opportunity—a short one, and one which would quickly pass—of sitting at the feet of the Lord Jesus and listening to Him outweighed in importance everything else at the moment. Besides making the most of this opportunity, just then nothing else mattered. And very probably Mary had a far keener insight into the mind of the Great Teacher, who was there for so short a time, than had the anxious and worried, if kind-hearted, Martha.
What Is Real Hospitality?
When guests enter our house it is right that we should seek to provide them with all that they can need; we would go further, and would offer them what we believe will give them the greatest pleasure. We say to ourselves that we hope they will enjoy their sojourn with us. But do we ever ask in what the true enjoyment of our most worthy guests consists? Do we not too often see their pleasures only through our own eyes, and decide, according to the accepted standards of the conventional which rule us, what they ought to enjoy, rather than take the trouble to enter into their feelings? Is there not often at least a measure of pride, a desire to give ourselves satisfaction, in the nature of the hospitality which we offer? How often when we have been the guests of others would not some of us have gladly given up three-fourths of what was set before us to eat and to drink in exchange for half-an-hour’s quiet conversation with some thoughtful person in the neighborhood we were visiting! For then we could have enjoyed that refreshment of soul, that stimulus of a mind greater and richer than our own, which the busy often need far more than mere bodily satisfaction.
May not Jesus have felt something of this that day in the home at Bethany? He lived a busy life, and His interests were centered on a great purpose—to influence others, to teach them the precious truths He had come to reveal. He would know Mary’s anxiety to learn, that she might impart what she had learned to other women. To help her in this high purpose would be to Jesus far greater enjoyment than to partake of all the material things Martha was so anxiously providing. And, besides, by her bustling to and fro, Martha was actually preventing those few minutes of quiet so precious to Jesus and to Mary His disciple.
Are We Doing the Usual or the Right Thing?
Martha, like a great many well-meaning people today, was evidently the slave of convention, and to do what was the fashion was, in her eyes as in the opinion of so many, to do the “right” thing. Is it not true that the majority of people who wish to be hospitable, and to show kindness and honor and respect, simply ask themselves what, under the circumstances, is the usual thing to do? For in their opinion the usual is only another term for the right thing. They would do what fashion demands. But fashion is a hard taskmaster. He runs up many accounts, but does he pay many bills? And what does being in the fashion too often mean? Does it not mean obtaining and displaying and using what those who are richer than ourselves possess? It too often means a display (at the cost of much labor and anxiety) of our possession of the material things of life. And then the greater part of both our time and our energy must be directed towards these things—towards obtaining and displaying and taking care of them. We must remember that all material things are to be sought and are useful just in so far as, and no further than, they minister to the higher life. A comfortable, well-ordered, healthy house will so minister; but the moment the house and its contents become an end, rather than a means to an end, the true order of importance has been reversed. A sufficiency of plain and wholesome food ministers to the higher life, for in health we can think more clearly, work harder, and be more useful to others; but the moment the care for eating and drinking goes beyond this, the true order of things has been lost. Once more, a reasonable amount of recreation ministers to the usefulness of life, for it also promotes and tends to maintain health, and so the powers of usefulness; but when energy is consumed in providing the means for expensive amusements (often because these are fashionable), and when much time is consumed in taking part in them, in this case also a sense of proportion has been lost. The “judgment values” of life, upon whose correctness so much depends, are in all these cases false. It is still only too frequently true that in being so anxious about the means of living we often deprive ourselves of the opportunity for life itself.
Our Lord says, “Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and troubled about many things: but a few things are needful.” And in Gal 5:1 St. Paul says, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.” And these words of St. Paul’s seem extremely applicable to the subject before us; for Christ has, if we have accepted the liberty He has given us, set us free from “many things.” But have we fulfilled, are we fulfilling, the conditions of that liberty? Are we not rather the slaves of many a worldly conventionality which causes us far more worry and far greater anxiety than we would care to confess? Does not Christ tell us that it was “for judgment that He came into the world”? And the function of judgment is to give right decisions, and, among these, correct estimates of intrinsic value. Thus Christ will help us to decide upon the true value of many possessions and many objects of anxious effort upon which our own judgments are often seriously at fault.
In one place Christ speaks with great plainness upon the subject. In the Parable of the Sower He tells us that some of the seed—and by the seed is meant that which contains the principle of the higher life, that which is essential to the development of that life—some of the seed fell among the thorns. These thorns represent “the anxieties, riches, and pleasures of this life,” which grow and choke the seed and render it unfruitful. The very order of these evils is suggestive; first anxieties, then riches, then pleasures. How anxious some people seem to be not merely to have enough, but to be rich, and that in order to be able to enjoy what are by convention regarded as the pleasures of this world, but which all the time are a cause of weariness of soul to many who participate in them, and in the meanwhile there is no bringing what should be the true fruit of life to perfection.
Think of the contrast between freedom in and through Christ, and of slavery to the conventions, the fashions of the world. As redeemed by Christ, as free in Him, we ought to enjoy the fullest opportunity for the development of the highest life; but actually this is too often prevented by the slavery which I have been describing. How then can we enjoy the freedom which Christ has potentially won for us? Christ is the Light of the World; He is also the Wisdom of God and the Power of God.
Only One Thing Is Needful
The secret of the highest and purest success in life lies in the ability first to choose and then to make effort after those things which are of really greatest worth. Of course, together with this choice, there must be a ceasing to strive after things of no intrinsic or permanent value. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Now ability to choose rightly, and also to obtain, implies the possession of all the three qualities of Christ which I have just mentioned, namely, Light, Wisdom, and Power.
These we may obtain from Him; and before we can use them we must obtain them. By means of light we see things as they are; we discern their real nature, we can estimate their relative greatness or smallness. Only in the light, only, that is, in possession of the completest knowledge available, must we choose and select. This selection also implies skill, which is the true meaning of wisdom. The truly wise man is the man who can both choose and use skillfully. Christ’s wisdom is seen in His choices, in His decisions. The proof of His wisdom is seen in the results of these. Christ chooses, and He teaches us to choose those things which are of permanent value and which satisfy the highest parts of our nature. Our want of wisdom is seen in our frequent rejection of these things for objects which give only a very temporary satisfaction, and that only to the lower part of our nature.
But in addition to light or knowledge, in addition also to choice or decision, we need power. We need power to do what we know we ought to do and have chosen to do. Remember St. Paul’s words, “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”
Light, wisdom, power are three conditions of freedom—of the freedom which, as a possibility, Christ has won for us. To obtain them we must possess Him. He is the One needful; they are the few things needful. Possession and use of these will prevent that worry which wears out life, that distraction which, in its endless seeking after things of comparatively little value, destroys even its own object. In its constant search after what it considers necessary as means of living it forgets life itself.