Theme: One Thing is needed
Bible Reading: Luke 10:38-42 & Mark 10:17-22
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Choices are easy when we are choosing between good and bad, but what if the choice is between a number of good things? We continue our sermon series exploring “the one thing” by deep diving into two very familiar gospel stories where Jesus himself challenged people with the phrase “one thing”. What was Jesus implying when he said that just one thing was needed, or that one thing is important?
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Have you seen the movie City Slickers? I wanted to show you a clip from it but there is too much swearing in it, so I am going to have to describe it to you instead. In one scene Jack Palance and Billy Crystal’s characters are riding along talking about life and stress and what’s important when Jack asks “Do you know what the secret to life is?” Billy answers, “No, what?” Jack holds up his finger and says, “This.” Billy says, “Your finger?” Then Jack says, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean [nothin’].”
Billy answers, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?”
Jack says, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”
In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey coined the phrase, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” But what is the main thing?
In a sense that is a what this sermon series is about. The one thing. That phrase – the one thing – is only said 5 times in the bible – and is said in five different contexts. Whether it is the Apostle Paul or David or Martha or the Rich Young Ruler … they are all trying to work out this (hold up finger) … what is the one thing.
Last week we looked at Psalm 27:4 where David found himself in a time of doubt, of blaming himself, of being `criticised and attacked … and David had the choice whether to get angry at God and push God away, or to lean into God and be embraced by God’s love. The One thing David seeked – is that a word – the one thing he sought – was to be in the presence of God. David had a choice and he chose to be close to God – which is really the only choice he could make. If the choice is between being with God or rejecting God … it is a clear good vs bad choice … unlike the choices in our two bible reading today. Martha and Mary also had a choice but it wasn’t as clear cut. The Rich Young Ruler was not choosing between a good and bad thing … but a number of good things.
And that is the difficultly when it comes to prioritising things in life. Life is not about making an easy black and white choice between a 80 hour week for a terrible boss or loving your family – it is trying to balance giving your best to your career vs giving your best to your family vs giving your best to God … all those are important so how do you prioritise one over the other.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into these two very familiar bible stories of today – the Rich Young Ruler and Mary & Martha – and see if what God might reveal to us about the One Thing.
Let’s start with Mary and Martha from Luke 10. Last year in the “perspective” sermon series we looked at this passage from a number of different perspectives – how this passage could be about priorities, or about the need to be in the presence of Jesus, or about the impact of our worries in distorting our thinking, and even a perspective about how this passage might not be about housework but ministry. Martha the town pastor who is asking Jesus to tell Mary, the travelling pastor, to come home and help with the ministry here.
If you are interesting in learning about these different perspectives, the sermon is still up on our website if you wish to relisten to that. (We will put the link in the comments).
But for today, we are holding together the decision of Mary to sit at Jesus feet listening and Martha decision to busy herself with what was needed to be done. Why does Jesus affirm Mary’s choice over Martha’s?
Because we are talking about the ONE THING … let’s focus in on that phrase. If we read it again from the NLT, verse 41 and 42 says, “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered. “You are worried and upset about many things. But few things are needed. Really, only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better. And it will not be taken away from her.”
Notice that Jesus transition to “the one thing” by first mentioning that Martha is worried about “many things” but “few” things are needed. And then Jesus adds “really, only one thing is needed”.
Can you see how the context of the phrase “the one thing” is quite different from Psalm 27 last week. Jesus is not talking about a choice between doing something or not, between either listening or serving … but rather about not being worried about too many things, but rather just being focused on a few, or maybe just one thing is needed.
These verses in the original Greek take this idea a step forward. The line “Mary has chosen what is better” in the original Greek is like “Mary has chosen the good portion” or “Mary has assigned parts in the better way”. The Greek is implying that the decision of Martha and Mary has not choosing either listening at Jesus feet or serving – but the choice was how they assigned portion to both serving and listening. Maybe Jesus was affirming that they Mary’s balance or assigning of priorities was better than Martha’s.
I find this perspective helpful – because in my life, I struggle with working out the best way to assign priorities and to be truthful, I end up saying yes to too many good things and assigning more portions that I can handle.
What I hear from this passage is not having to dump all the good things that I wish to do or be a part of, but rather to first work out what are the few things that are really important and assign a greater portion to those … and maybe even work out the one thing that is most important and always make sure that the one thing is always assigned the greatest portion.
But what about our other Bible reading from Mark about the Rich Young Ruler. It would seem that this young man had got his portions right? We read that ever since he was a boy he has kept God’s commandments. He has spent his life committed to following God’s law which in the Old Testament understanding is the number one thing a person had to do to be right with God. And Jesus does not criticise the young man for this, indeed we are told in the reading that to these words Jesus looked at him and loved him.
Where as with Mary and Martha the phrase was “one thing is needed”, here with the Rich Young Ruler it is “one thing you lack”. You see, I don’t think that Jesus was criticising his focus on keeping God’s commandments … actually I think that Jesus affirm what the young man has been doing. I think that they key here is that Jesus is reflecting on how this young man is portioning or prioritising things in his life and saying that he was lacking one thing in the mix.
Often preachers use this passage to talk about sacrificing for God about letting go of things for the sake of Jesus. But I say again, Jesus is affirming that what the young man is doing is good but he is lacking one thing… he needs to add one more thing in. One thing you lack!
The Greek word for “lack” is the same word that you would use if you fell behind in a race or you were late to a party. You are missing out or you are not reaching the fullness of life not because what you are doing in wrong but because you are lacking this one thing.
With this passage there is always a discussion about whether the words of Jesus about giving all your money to the poor are universal words for all people, or spoken specifically to the rich young ruler.
In the light of what we are exploring today, maybe the idea of “the one thing you lack” is the universal idea … but the “particular one thing we lack” is unique to each of us.
Maybe the challenge for us all today is that to ponder whether we might be lacking one thing in our daily walk with Jesus. Maybe spiritually we are doing ok but we are just lacking one thing that is stopping us moving to the next level, or achieving that fullness of life that Jesus offers.
For the Rich Young Ruler, that one thing he was lacking was his inability to share his blessings with others. What is the one thing that we might be lacking that is holding us back? What is the one thing that we need to add into our mix of priorities, or add a portion to the key things in our life to unlock an even greater sense of growth?
So how do we hold these two sermons together?
David in Psalm 27 gave us the challenge to ponder what is the most important thing in our lives … what is the one thing that we desire, that we seek, that we turn to when life get’s hard? For David, the one thing he sought was to be close to God.
This week we have been challenged by Mary and Martha to reflect on how we try to prioritise many things in life, when really only a few are needed. And within that few, how do we “portion” those priorities in a way which is good. And is there One Thing that we need to prioritise above all others in that mix?
And then the experience of Jesus and the young man challenged us to think about whether we are lacking one thing in our mix, one thing that by its omission is holding us back. To think about what we might need to add to that mix of priorities to help us experience the fullness of life that Jesus offers?
The key here is how we respond to these challenges. Unfortunately, in the story of Mary and Martha we are not sure how Martha responded to the words of Jesus. Did she re-evaluate the mix of her priorities and realise that she needed a bit more listening and a little less serving? We know that for the young man, he couldn’t see how he could include the suggestion of Jesus into his life. He couldn’t see the one thing he lacked and walked away.
I said at the beginning of last week’s sermon that for many people lockdown has been a time of re-evaluating. I encourage you to use this time to reflect on your own priorities, your own portioning? Is there too many things we are worried about? How do we shrink that down to a few? Is there anything we are lacking that needs to be added in?
And just as Jesus guided Mary, Martha and the young man in their deliberations, may Jesus guide us in ours.