This morning we hear the story of the two sisters Martha and Mary, surely one of the most retable stories in the Bible. Jesus comes to visit, invited by Martha, who immediately sets to work, making plans, prepping dinner, organizing the way one needs to when an important guest arrives. Mary, on the other hand, sits and listens to Jesus, while Martha rushes about. True to siblings, this frustrates Martha – a natural inclination for the one doing the heavy lifting. She complains to Jesus: Don’t you care that I am doing everything. Tell Mary to help me!” But Jesus refuses – you are distracted by a lot of stuff, Martha. Mary has chosen to focus on one thing. Not only does he refuse to step in, but he appears to elevate Mary—the listener, above Martha—the doer.
This story in the gospel has often been taking literally – that Jesus is saying that Martha is wasting her time on silly things, while Mary is investing in what counts. As so Martha comes off looking shallow, a complainer.
But if you are the doer in your family, you might be rolling your eyes at Jesus’ response. That is all very fine and well – but if Martha were indeed to sit down and do nothing, who would get dinner ready? Jesus, after all, did not travel alone. Someone had to handle the many tasks of hosting guests – the cleaning and cooking and preparations to ensure everyone’s comfort. We don’t get Martha’s response – but I can see her also rolling her eyes (at least inside) and going back to the kitchen to make sure the food doesn’t burn. I imagine her as a strong, efficient woman who knows her own mind, who takes care of business. (After all, she is the one bold enough to invited Jesus in the first place.) As any doer knows, Jesus response is a bit tone-deaf. Eventually, he will want dinner too. Perhaps a chalice of wine. A feminist interpretation of this text, might cite it as an example of Jesus’s humanness – for all his progressive ideas about gender and equality, he was still a man born in a certain time. Perhaps he had never thought about who makes sure dinner gets on the table.
This story in the gospel has often been taking literally – that Jesus is saying that Martha is wasting her time on silly things, while Mary has the right idea. But can we look at it another way? Can we explore a deeper idea that Jesus is presenting?
In a new book, Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann, explores a related idea. His book is called JOMO – the Joy of Missing Out. You will probably know what FOMO is – the Fear of Missing Out, a phenomenon that has only grown with the advent of social media showing us the fabulous life of our friends, and all the consumer choices in our country.
But Brinkman argues from the other side. JOMO, he argues, is necessary, not only for our inner well-being, but also for society to survive. FOMO is toxic because we are ALWAYS missing out on something – we can never reach the end, and much of FOMO is shaped by the poisonous emotions of envy and arrogance, and by what society tells us to value. But JOMO is specific, decisive and individual, and yet, often, society-serving. If we want to save the environment, some of us will have to choose to “miss out” on certain purchases even if we can afford them – as countries and individuals. As a society, to be equal, and to create fairness, those with the advantage may have to “miss out” to lift up those at a disadvantage. And to have a purposeful life, he suggests, we need to focus on what matters, and resist the urge to chase what doesn’t – we need to practice missing out, until we do it joyfully. Choosing to give up the big paying job, is a decision to miss out – to gain something else. Choosing to give more to a charity is a choice to miss out on spending the money on ourselves, to share it with another. There is joy in that, he argues. And joy is a far more life-giving emotion than fear.
And this is where, Martha goes awry. She falls prey to FOMO. She is upset about what she is missing in the living room while organizing the kitchen – and she wants Jesus to make her sister help her. But Mary is, in that moment, practicing JOMO – she has decided what matters to her, in the moment – to learn from Jesus – and she is focused upon the task. She is, as far as we know, not worrying whether the floor has been swept or the table dusted. Martha, on the hand, may take great pleasure in hosting, in making her guests feel welcome, in managing a household – these are acts to make someone else more comfortable that require her to sacrifice her time with Jesus. Her choice is a noble one. But she is not doing it joyfully. She feels resentful about it.
Now, Jesus response could have been more tactful. But let’s suppose that Martha’s distractions are not her hosting, but her focus on what her sister is doing. And couldn’t we also say, that when Jesus speaks of Mary’s better choice, he means that Mary has chosen to devote her time on what she thinks is important, and let all the other expectations of how she should behave fall away. After all, Jesus also talks a lot about good works and choices, and that there is always a cost we have to pay. Choosing one path we give up another.
Still, I imagine Martha also just wanted to feel appreciated – for her work to be noticed. And that is the tricky part. Because the fear of missing out as a way of living requires our good works to be catalogued – else how would others also know they are missing out? But JOMO exists inside us, it is the joy we take ourselves from living according to our best values, and our faith and what we choose to prioritize. We don’t need to brag about it, or be praised for it. Because it is right for us. And in that joy, we are at peace with ourselves.
Both Martha and Mary were living lives of faith – if practiced in different ways. From both we can learn important lessons – Martha, the doer, falls victim to the frustration of so many doers – and feels unappreciated; but she was taking care of others. Mary, the listener, has chosen to make the rest of the world quiet to hear the message she thinks most important in that moment. At different times, we are both Marthas and Marys. Moral choices, priorities, and faith inevitably mean missing out on something. Maybe that’s more money. Maybe it’s a gas-guzzling car. Maybe it’s the chance to sit before dinner and put one’s feet up. But the better way is to be deliberate in that choice, and find joy in missing out on the path not chosen. The gospel is teaching us an important lesson for our lives in this present time. To find joy in missing out on the path not chosen—to practice JOMO. This practice from Jesus will help us to live lives of purpose.