Religion is about balance, we are often told.
For example, there’s a story in the gospel of Luke about Jesus paying a visit to two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha busied herself with the necessary household preparations, while Mary simply sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. This story is often invoked to suggest the need for a balance between action and contemplation in the Christian life.
I like that idea. I’m the kind of person who can see both sides of every issue. I like compromise, fairness, taking everyone’s feelings into consideration. Christianity as balance works great for me.
I only wish that were how it is.
If you actually read that story about Martha and Mary, it doesn’t say that Jesus wanted balance between the two sisters at all. “Mary has chosen the better part,” he says—Mary, who left all the housework to her sister and just sat around drinking in the words of Jesus! Unfair! Unethical!
Christianity, this little story suggests, is not about keeping things in balance. No, it’s about choosing one thing and dropping all others. It’s a wild-eyed plunge into the heart of all that is. It means loving God without limit, without distraction, without restraint, without dignity. Jesus was always telling people things like that. “No one can serve two masters!” “Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will drink!” “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength!”
Those kinds of things tend not to be the standard message of mainstream religion. Instead, we all too often hear something like, “You can serve both God and Mammon—let me show you how!” We’re much better at compromise and balance than Jesus was. I guess we should be proud of that, but somehow it makes me nervous.
Now, I don’t think Jesus meant to tell Martha she should just sit down and keep still for the rest of her life. He had work for her and Mary to do; it just wasn’t the socially acceptable work of entertaining guests and keeping house. It wasn’t the kind of work that would let you keep your religion in balance with the other interests in your life.Jesus called people to a single-minded devotion to God in spite of all social pressures, conventions, and conveniences. It wasn’t just Martha with her housework who got this call. James and John left their father behind in the family fishing boat, and followed Jesus. I ask you, is that any way to start a socially responsible religion?
Yet there have always been people who followed this unbalanced Jesus. One of my daughters (who has had her unbalanced moments herself) once said to me, “Moderation’s for monks.” I thought to myself, “You must not know many monks.” The Christian monastic tradition began with people like Anthony of Egypt, who left daily social life behind and headed out to the wilderness to devote himself body and soul to the quest for communion with God.
We think of Francis of Assisi as a sweet little guy who talked to the birds. But Francis too renounced his family and his father’s business and lived as a homeless beggar. He encouraged his companions to have no possessions and no home, and to roam around proclaiming the love of God and calling on people to repent of their materialism and lack of compassion.
Sort of like Jesus.
“Whom have I in heaven but you? And besides you I desire nothing on earth,” sings a psalmist (Psalm 73:25). This is not an endorsement of a life lived in balance and harmony. It’s an impassioned declaration of love for a God with whom nothing can be put in the scales and balanced.
I like the idea of balance. I like symmetry and safety. Yet the God whom I worship keeps pulling me in another direction. It is a pull of love, to be sure, a love that is utterly trustworthy.
At the same time, though, there is something about the love of God that is wild and unpredictable.
It is a love that wants to have all of me, wants to sweep everything else from its path.
It is a love that simply will not remain in balance.