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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Luke 10:38-42
September 1, 2013 - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

         As a young boy I was constantly frightened that my great aunt would catch me doing my favorite thing. On a hot summer afternoon in Arizona I loved to lie down on the sofa in her cool living room and read a book or a comic. But if she caught me there, she would cry out, “Lying down reading? Get up from there!” She had the notion that the only healthy reading posture was sitting up. Even more she would have preferred me to be playing outside or, better yet, doing some chore like sweeping the front porch.

         Auntie Pop definitely believed that the last of our deadly sins is a sin. Sloth, or just plain laziness as she saw it, was one of the great evils of the world and a corrupter of youth. She made a valiant effort to get everyone in her charge, and even those who weren’t, to be as constantly active and busy as she was.

         When it comes to our text this morning, you can bet that my Auntie Pop would have been on Martha’s side. In fact, if my great aunt had been in Martha’s place, she would not only have gotten Mary out there in the kitchen, she would have had Jesus peeling potatoes too. Nobody found it easy to just sit around, much less lie down, in her presence.

         You may not be a workaholic like my aunt, but I’m guessing that, especially if you are a woman, you have a lot of sympathy for Martha. From our perspective as hard-working, diligent Americans, it does look an awful lot like Mary is the offender in this story. It looks like she is committing this week’s sin, the sin of sloth, of laziness when there is work to be done.

         Dorothy Sayers wrote that she had never heard a sermon on this text that did not, in some way or other, sympathize to some degree with Martha.[1] Indeed, almost everyone prefers Martha to Mary. Women prefer her because you relate to her story, you empathize with her plight. You see yourself working hard, busy with the necessities of life, and way too distracted to sit down for a little informal Bible study before dinner.

         Men prefer Martha because, after all, she’s the one getting dinner ready. Even in our enlightened, egalitarian age we males are far too often utterly dependent on women who do what we think women are supposed to do, making our lives easier by cooking and taking care of children and typing our memos and picking up our messes.

         Yet as Sayers points out, Jesus Himself preferred Mary’s behavior at that moment to Martha’s. Yes, He loved Martha, and Martha had her own moment of spiritual brilliance in John 11 verse 27, where she made an affirmation that matched Simon Peter’s recognition that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. But right then at their home, in the late afternoon before mealtime, Jesus preferred what Mary did over what Martha did. He said, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

         Sloth is not just laziness. Being busy and working hard will not necessarily save you from this deadly sin. In fact, being too busy may be a cover for sloth. That’s because sloth, as Thomas Aquinas tells us, repeating what other church fathers said before, is first and foremost an attitude, an attitude of sadness or sorrow. Sloth is sadness or sorrow about goodness, about spiritual goodness.

         The ultimate good for human beings is to love God. Our highest good is our highest love. It’s what used to be called “charity” before that word got reduced to mean merely donations to a worthy cause. Thomas says sloth is a sin against charity. To love God, to be in close friendship with God, is the great goal of human life. It’s what we were made for. Sloth is the condition of being sad, being discouraged about that close relationship with God.

         Slothful sadness about your relationship with God is not just laziness about spiritual activity. Getting weary of prayer or Bible study or coming to worship may be one of the results of sloth, of that spiritual sadness, but mere tiredness isn’t a sin. No, the sin of sloth happens when what makes us sad and weary is the very thought of our relationship with God, the very idea of loving Him more than we love anyone or anything else.

         In some sense, sloth is having commitment issues with God. It’s a common experience in relationships today. You care about someone, but the idea of long-term, deep commitment frightens you, makes you sad. So you drag your feet, you fail to do the things which bring you closer, you may appear lazy about your part of the relationship. But laziness is not the root of the problem. The root is how you feel about being together, that sadness and resistance toward going deeper.

         So sloth happens when you do love God. You sense His care and love for you. You even like the idea of being closer to Him. But somewhere inside you resist the very thought of a deeper, more lasting commitment to God. You may resent what He will expect of you. You may doubt that He can truly do you any good. In the end you let those feelings keep you from doing what’s needed to truly love the Lord.

         That may be what happened to Martha as she bustled around getting the vegetables cut and the meat roasted and the wine poured. She loved Jesus, but right then that love just made her sad, made her resent Him and the effect He had on her sister. It made her unwilling to do what was needed, to rearrange her priorities to spend time with Jesus rather than in the kitchen.

         Sloth has a definite connection with laziness. Not everyone is like Martha. Sadness about spiritual life, about one’s relationship with God can make you not want to do anything which takes effort. The church father John Cassian wrote about his monks who lived in the desert getting sleepy and sluggish in the heat of noontime. They got lazy about their prayers and their Scripture reading.

         In our epistle lesson from II Thessalonians 3, Paul warned that church about folks who were idle, who thought they could live off the work and charity of others. Sloth does take that form sometimes, plain old laziness. Paul told the church to show tough love, to not feed those who wouldn’t work, to not enable slothful laziness. But the worst form of laziness is about spiritual things, and its core is something deeper.

         You and I can be slothful about spiritual work. We may neglect our daily devotions or resist committing ourselves to a Bible study group. We may come to church less frequently or quit volunteering to serve in some way. The root however, is not the laziness, it’s our sadness, our discouragement about loving God.

         This lazy form of sloth is closely connected with what we call “boredom.” Those monks in the desert didn’t just get drowsy in the middle of the day. They got disgusted with their present situation. They imagined other monasteries in other places where they might have been leaders, where the spiritual discipline was better, more exciting, where the other monks were more interesting, and where the food would come more conveniently.

         Our text from Jeremiah warned the Jewish people about leaving God and going “after worthless things,” telling them they became worthless themselves. That’s sloth, to get so distracted from God that you become spiritually worthless. Verse 11 marvels that they got so bored with God that they changed to other gods.

         Being bored with God and with the things of God is sloth. It’s a deadly sin which keeps us from thinking about and doing the good God has for us. Boredom can make us keep switching churches, or make us quit volunteering at the Food Bank, or cause us to have an affair. We may say we’re bored when in fact, like those Jews in Jeremiah’s time, we’ve given up on God and all that He means to us.

         Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life, was famous for saying, “It’s a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel.” That slogan worked O.K. for several generations of kids who grew up being entertained, whether it was music or school or church or even relationships. But maybe we should start once again teaching kids and ourselves that it’s a sin to be bored. It’s a sin to be bored with the Gospel. It’s a sin to be listless and apathetic and uncaring about the wonder and glory of God and what He is doing in our lives. It’s the sin of sloth.

         Slothful boredom brings us back around to Martha again, because how do we often deal with our boredom? Like my great aunt and many Americans, we get busy. Unlike those desert monks who just sat daydreaming about better monasteries, we get up and go looking for new and different and more exciting spiritual activities, new and better relationships, maybe a new job or a new car or a new cell phone. We look for any possible change to distract us from the basic problem of our apathy toward God.

         Or maybe like Martha we don’t do anything new at all, we just stay so busy with the ordinary stuff of life that we don’t need to think about our spiritual condition. Martha wasn’t lazy, but that afternoon she gave up on her relationship with the Lord and distracted herself, as Jesus told her in verse 41, “with many things.” She was really busy, but underneath it all was the spiritual sin of sloth, apathy toward the Lord.

         America is full of people like Martha. No wonder we feel so sympathetic toward her. She is you and I. We give up on God. We get pessimistic about the possibility of any real joy and connection with God. And then we hide that attitude behind a screen of busy activity, whether it’s work or recreation or home repair or kids’ sports or even Christian service. If we just stay busy enough we won’t have to think about how it really is between us and God. And that too is the sin of sloth.

         Jesus told Martha, “there is need of only one thing.” One commentary I read suggested He meant that all He wanted was a simple hot dish for dinner, not the eight course meal she was slaving at. But that’s silly. The Lord of the universe was not in the business of tips on how to throw a dinner party. No, Jesus was talking about that need at the center of every one of us, the need to love and be in relationship with Him. Mary got that one necessity, but Martha did not.

         Will you and I get it? Or will we let ourselves be sad and apathetic about the one and only thing that matters most for us? Will we get up out of our slothful laziness or dial back our slothful busyness so that we can discover the joy and excitement of being with and loving our Lord who died and rose again?

         I don’t know what it is for you, but there is a great adventure waiting for you when you give yourself to that one key thing of loving Jesus, of loving God. It might be something visibly exciting like a mission journey with the Lord across the world or to some poor community in this country. Or it might be the less flashy adventure of being a faithful spouse and parent, maybe raising or helping teach children to love God. It could be chance to aid someone in a crisis or an opportunity to discover new truths in the Bible.

         All I know is that the adventure, the excitement is there if we will refuse the sin of sloth, refuse to be too busy or too lazy to grab hold of that one needful thing, the joy of loving God. Paul said, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Jesus said that the one good thing, the one truly exciting and glorious thing in life, would not be taken away from Mary. Don’t give up, don’t get distracted, don’t get too lazy or too busy, and the love of Jesus Christ will not be taken from you.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Are Women Human? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 46f.

Last updated September 1, 2013