Choosing What’s Important

It seems that over the last week or so, there’s been a preponderance of articles, stories and blog posts centered around the idea of focusing on what’s most important in life.  For example, The Harvard Business Review  recently posted an article entitled “Manage Your Work, Manage Your Life” in which they cite research conducted among almost 4,000 executives, addressing this question by asking them how they reconcile their personal and professional lives. Similarly, in the many conversations I’ve had recently, the topic of “priorities” has come up regularly.  Business and organizational leaders alike are constantly struggling with how to prioritize given all that’s required of them.  It seems that the question, “What’s most important?” is top of mind for many.

In the bible, there’s a story told about Jesus visiting some friends of his, a woman named Martha and her sister, Mary.   In the story, the Jewish Sabbath is approaching and Martha, as was the custom for the women back then, was very busy preparing her home and the meal for the Sabbath.  Instead of helping, her sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet”.  This phrase is a metaphor for being a disciple, a lifelong student of a rabbi or teacher.  When Martha realizes that her sister isn’t helping, she goes to Jesus and complains, accusing her sister of “just sitting there while I do all the work”.  Jesus patiently responds, telling Martha, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it”.

What I find interesting is that determining what’s most important isn’t usually that difficult.  What seems to be the challenge in my life and in the lives of those I speak with is making the most important thing the most important thing. In the story about Mary and Martha, Mary gives us some insight on how to do so…

  • Mary made spiritual things and relationships top priority by what she DID.  Mary chose sitting at the Teacher’s feet.  Martha chose preparing for Sabbath.  Mary chose God, her Teacher, the Rabbi, his teaching.  Martha chose work, activity, following the prescribed order.  Mary’s behavior indicates that she put spiritual things and relationships over “getting things done”.  She was commended for doing so.  In today’s world, there is lots of talk about spiritual things and the importance of people/relationships. But talk is cheap.  Priorities, however, are what we DO .

  • Mary didn’t do what others expected of her.  As a God-fearing Jewish woman, Martha was following the conventional role given to women in her day.  With Sabbath approaching, and guests (even a Rabbi) in the home, the proper preparations needed to be made. It was expected that the woman of the house would fulfill this role. In addition, her sister Mary would have been expected to help.   But she didn’t. Instead, she sat at the Rabbi’s feet. I like to think that Mary was thinking, “I know my sister won’t like this, and that’s a shame, but if I have to choose between sitting at his feet and getting the house ready, I’ll choose sitting at his feet every time.” The word “conviction” comes to mind here.  Mary had it, and no clever argument, no persuasive fact, no cultural norms, nor anything else anyone expected her to do  was going to move her from her position.

  • Mary ignored was culturally or socially acceptable.  In Mary’s day, most disciples were men.  So, that day at her home, Jesus was most likely surrounded by other men who were listening to his teaching.  Suddenly, in comes this woman. She plops herself down right in the middle of them ready to join the discussion.   I can imagine the eyes, and even the thoughts of indignation.  But she didn’t care.  She had chosen the most important thing, and that was all she cared about. It may not be socially acceptable to prioritize the spiritual or relational.  To some, it may not even be good business practice.  But if the story of Mary teaches us one thing, it’s that society has certain norms that must be broken if we are going to pursue the most important things.

So we should ask ourselves, “What’s the most important thing?”.  Then, we should ask, “What’s keeping me from pursuing it?  Have I prioritized incorrectly?  Am I being who everyone else expects me to be?  Am I letting society or my community dictate my way?   Hopefully, not.  Hopefully we’re following the example of a Jewish woman some 2000+ years ago.  Hopefully, we’re making the “one thing” the most important thing.