It’s always harder to do right and easier to do wrong. But what is really difficult is choosing the better over the good. In other words, often, we can get stuck doing what is good and miss out on what is better. This is a difficult lesson to learn!
For example: Ice cream is good, but yogurt is better for you. Eating steak and potatoes is good, but it would be better to eat more vegetables and a salad…every once in a while. Not acting out on your anger is good, but reaching out to the other person in love, and performing an act of kindness, is even better. Staying busy is good, but using your time wisely is better.
You get the idea.
In ethics, choosing the better over the good is referred to as choosing the “harder right” and it’s a very rare choice. The harder right may mean the good remain undone. The harder right calls for sacrifice. The harder right usually results in severe criticism from friends as well as foes. The harder right is seldom rewarded. Thus, rarely do we choose the harder right.
For some, the harder right means swallowing your pride, and admitting you were wrong, in order to save the relationship. Thus, the harder right involves humility.
For others, the harder right means not taking that promotion because it will mean less time with your family. Thus, the harder right involves selflessness.
For others still, the harder right means breaking off friendships and relationships, because you know they are toxic to your spiritual and emotional health. Thus, the harder right involves discernment and courage.
What does all this have to do with Luke’s Gospel? There is a story at the end of Luke chapter 10 that illustrates choosing the harder right. This story is an example of choosing the better over the good.
Martha and Mary
Luke 9:51 marks a significant change in the story of Jesus’ life as told by Luke. “As the time approached for him to taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Jesus’ Galilean ministry has come to an end. Now, everything that happens will lead to His crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem to die. A few miles east of Jerusalem, in the town of Bethany, lives a family very close to Jesus. The man of the house was “Simon the Leper” (Mark 14:3), whom Jesus had healed. Three siblings who either lived with him or close to him (we are not told the exact relationship between Simon and the siblings) were Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. In addition to healing Simon, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44); and on one occasion, Mary, anointed Jesus by pouring expensive perfume on His head (Mark 14:3). These were dear friends to Jesus, and so while in Jerusalem, Jesus stayed in their home.
Luke writes, “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him” (Luke 10:38). The importance of hospitality in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day cannot be overemphasized. The responsibility for hospitality fell primarily on the women of the home. Showing hospitality was Marth’s spiritual gift. Luke continues, “She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (Luke 10:39). Read that verse again. It is an incredible verse in the social context and cultural norms of that day. Luke is telling us that Mary (and by implication, Martha) were disciples of Jesus! Jesus was recognized as a Rabbi, and only the disciples of a Rabbi were allowed to sit at their feet. But only males were allowed to be disciples; never women. Jesus broke the mold of cultural standards! He allowed women to be His disciples and in His inner circle! This is one of the most radical and revolutionary shifts for women in the entire Bible. Jesus changes the social order and social stigmas of fallen humanity! Following Jesus is always counter-cultural. When we try to make Him culturally relevant we strip His message and ministry of transformational power. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male no female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
While Mary was sitting, Martha was serving, but she lost sight of why she served. “But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’” (Luke 10:40). Sometimes serving becomes a drudgery, especially when you see others sitting around, doing nothing. From all accounts Martha was a godly lady, but for some reason she let this experience get to her. She took hospitality seriously and wanted to make sure everything was perfect, after all, Jesus deserves nothing less than our best. Mary, however, wasn’t ignoring Martha, she was simply basking in the presence of Jesus. What Martha was doing was good, even honorable. But what Mary was doing was even better.
Jesus, lovingly replies, “Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). Martha’s biggest problem was she was so busy serving Jesus that she neglecting sitting with Him. She was so focused on working for Jesus that she neglected her relationship with Him. It’s a problem of religiosity – serving God, and working for God, while neglecting our relationship with God. Here is a foundational truth: Your walk with Christ is more important than your work for Christ. Your relationship with Jesus is more important than your religion of Jesus.
The Good and the Better
Letting go of the good for the better is the harder right. In this story, Martha focused on the good while Mary focused on the better. Their difference was a difference of perspective. Martha had a temporal perspective (which was good); Mary had an eternal perspective (which is better). The main problem with focusing on the temporary is that it causes distraction and worry. Focusing on the eternal, doesn’t change the temporary, but it does bring clarity and peace to the temporary.
There are three advantages to letting go of the good for the better; three advantages of focusing on the eternal over the temporal. First, focusing on the eternal gives meaning to the temporary. The story is told of a traveler in the Middle Ages, who visited a city where many stonecutters were working on a cathedral. Approaching the men, he asked them all the same question: “What are you doing?” The first stonecutter replied, “I’m cutting stone. I have to do it. It’s my job” A second stonecutter responded the same, “I’m cutting stone I have to do it. It’s my job.” Several others repeated the same answer. Finally, he encountered a stonecutter with a different answer. He asked, “What are you doing?” This stonecutter pointed to a foundation several yards away, and with excitement in his voice and passion in his eyes, he proclaimed, “I’m cutting stone, and it’s beautiful. I’m helping to build a cathedral for the glory of God!”
If this life is all there is, it can be mundane and meaningless. But focusing on the eternal, the big picture, makes this life worth living. Your job is not a job; it’s an opportunity to support your family and bring glory to God. Parenting is more than parenting; it’s an opportunity to pass down your faith and values to the next generation. Problems are more than problems, they are opportunities to grow in your faith and become more like Jesus.
Second, focusing on the eternal diminishes distractions. It doesn’t make them go away, but it does minimize them. This is the same lesson Jesus taught in His parable of the sower (Luke 8:1-15). The seed that falls among thorns represents those who follow Christ, for a little while, but then are strangled by the concerns and distractions of this world. When we focus on the eternal, it places everything else in perspective. The Apostle Paul put it this way, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). James wrote, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trails of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
Third, focusing on the eternal shows the futility of worry. The story is told of a wife who had trouble sleeping for years because she feared burglars. One night her husband heard a noise in the house, so he went downstairs to investigate. When he got there, he found a burglar crouching behind the couch. “Good evening,” said the man of the house. “I am pleased to see you. Come upstairs and meet my wife. She has been waiting 20 years to meet you.” Worry is like that. It robs us of our joy and sleep, when most of the time what we worry about never actually happens. Elsewhere Jesus asked, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27) It is easy to worry about what is temporary. When all you see is your current situation, there are plenty of reasons to worry. By keeping eternity in view, you rise above your current situation and you see things more clearly. Peter exclaimed, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
A crow’s nest is a structure in the upper part of the main mast of a ship that is used as a lookout point. According to maritime legend, the term derives from the practice of Viking sailors, who carried crows in a cage secured to the top of the mast. In cases of poor visibility, a crow was released, and the ship’s captain plotted a course corresponding to the bird’s flight path because the crow instinctively headed towards the nearest land. Likewise, focusing on the eternal over the temporal helps you stay on course when you cannot see clearly.
Focusing on the eternal instead of the temporal, letting go of the good for the better, is easier said than done. Doing so involves a paradigm shift on your part, and that shift starts by spending more time with Jesus. In other words, the one thing you need, more than anything else, is a relationship with Him. You need to spend time alone with Him, sitting as His feet, listening to His Words. More than anything else, you need time with Jesus! The good news is Jesus loves to spend time with you. But in order to spend time with Jesus, you will have to choose the harder right. You will have to let go of the good in order to have what is better. Are you willing to do that?