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
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. 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
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
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.
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
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
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
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj