A few years ago, I read an excellent book by Greg McKeown entitled Essentialism. Throughout the book he highlights the way focus and clarity can yield amazing fruit in our lives. At one point in the book, he made a fascinating observation, writing, “The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next five hundred years.” It may seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me. Priority means “that which comes before everything else.” By pure logic, there can only be one thing that comes before everything else. In reality, we can only have one priority, we cannot have priorities. We live in a moment where we want to have many priorities, but that’s impossible.
It’s this very truth that Jesus drives home for Mary and Martha. Recording Jesus’ teaching, Luke wrote, “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’” The word ‘necessary’ could be translated, “things needed for sustenance and the journey.” Jesus is intentionally using language that describes a voyage. He’s not saying that there is only one thing that you can take; he’s saying that there is one thing you cannot leave without. He’s not saying you can only carry one thing; he’s saying there’s one thing that will shape the way you carry everything else.
Oftentimes when people talk about this passage, they subtly suggest that Jesus wants us to only focus on him. However, I sympathize with Martha. Someone has to pay the bills, and someone has to cook the food. We capture the essence of Jesus’ teaching when we read, “only one thing is necessary.” He is the only necessary thing. He is the sole priority. It doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything else or that we must spend all day doing nothing but sitting at his feet, it means that his presence shapes the way we do everything.
Every life has one priority. Take some time and try to identify what yours might be. You might look at your calendar or your credit card transactions to help you unearth your highest priority. Spend some time today turning your heart to Jesus and reaffirming to him that he is your “one necessary thing.”
By Ryan Paulson
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