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.” Lk. 10:41-42
Trying to halt the spread of contagion while still living our lives has forced governments to distinguish between essential and non-essential activities, jobs, and events. It has led to some almost comical misclassifications, at least in most people’s opinions. For example, we read reports that in Michigan you can buy lottery tickets but not garden seeds. In some places, apparently, you can be outside getting fresh air and exercising, but not if you’re doing it by landscaping your yard at the same time. In North Carolina, the government has declared that protesting the government’s classifications of what constitutes essential and non-essential activities is itself a non-essential activity, so you’re not allowed to be outside doing that. Which sort of begs the question, doesn’t it?
It is easy to find seemingly ludicrous examples, but that is because reducing everything to simple categories of essential and non-essential depends on a set of criteria that has never been agreed upon. I’ll bet if any of us tried to classify everything and enforce it, in no time there would be social media memes everywhere mocking the ridiculous consequences of the choices we made. It isn’t as easy as it sounds.
There is a famous scene in Schindler’s List in which Nazi officers have to classify all the Jewish workers in Warsaw as essential or non-essential. But at least they have a single criterion: is the job essential to the war effort or not. That makes things a tad easier. In one instance, an elderly man is declared nonessential and condemned because he is a teacher of history and literature. He is saved at the last minute when his friend convinces the officers that he is actually a metal polisher, required for the manufacture of armaments. What is essential? What isn’t? Who makes that call? Of what is a civilization made?
Nobody likes to be declared non-essential. Today, people who might have looked down on others who worked certain jobs are receiving their comeuppance. People who stock shelves, make deliveries, mop floors—these people are being lauded as the backbone of society. Nobody is saying, “We need a ballerina and three modern dance majors over here! Stat!” It turns out the people who might have once turned up their noses at basic trades and menial jobs are now finding themselves the ones declared non-essential, at least by some definitions.
In The Breakfast Club, a brainy A-student talks about taking shop class and failing to make a lamp properly, and how stupid the assignment was. Another student in shop class mocks him for being such a useless egghead in all the useless smart kid classes. The smart kid responds, “Well, did you know that without trigonometry there would be no engineering?” To which the critic replies, “Without lamps there would be no light.”
What is essential? What is non-essential? Students, and sometimes even their parents, fall prey to this overly-simplistic way of thinking sometimes. In the height of frustration trying to do school and work at home, the question, “Why do I have know this stuff?” never seems more apt. The foolish approach is to say that if isn’t going to help you get a better job, you should only do it if it is fun. The purpose of education goes beyond maximizing employment potential or mental entertainment. Language, history, art—these are all non-essential in terms of sustaining life, but essential in terms of making civilization worth sustaining. What is essential?
I hope one casualty of this shut-down is the tendency to look down on the jobs that require less formal education, but that prove essential in times of crisis. I also hope we don’t fall into the trap of looking down on jobs that do require a lot of education but don’t serve much immediate purpose in a crisis. Maybe one thing God is giving us is a renewed appreciation for all the various ways we depend on each other. For example, if you’ve been watching Netflix while stuck at home, thousands of people with “nonessential” areas of expertise, like creative writing, acting, history, modern dance, etc. have made that possible. So have countless people with “essential” expertise in the technology that makes streaming possible. So has the guy who delivered your tv to the store or your house, and the electrician that wired up the outlet. Everyone fits into the picture somehow. Be grateful for the many Marthas who did a million things for you that you couldn’t have done for yourself. We are interconnected.
The familiar story of Mary and Martha takes the world’s views of what is essential and non-essential and turns it upside down. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things—online classes, internet connections, delivery status updates, cleaning up breakfast—but one thing is necessary. There is it is. THE distinction. Christ is the one thing needful.
Jesus makes the distinction for us. Whatever else is essential to survive a crisis, to build up a civilization, to make a living, there is only one thing that that is essential in any eternal sense. If nothing else, God might be using this crisis to make us examine what is important and what isn’t. It is easy to lose track of it. Every other distinction between essential and non-essential fails. Not this one. You have Christ. He will not be taken away from you. You have the one thing needful. That is essential forever.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana