How to Get Your Priorities Straight

Reflection for the 31st Sunday. Year B. 2018
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Archway, London 


In 2011, Malawi in southern Africa made breaking news with proposed Air Fouling Legislation. The country’s Minister of Justice explained that the bill technically made farting in public illegal. When questioned further about it, he retorted; “Would you be happy to see people farting anyhow? … Just go to the toilet when you feel like farting”.

Some interesting laws are also said to have existed or still exist in parts of America. For instance, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania it is against the law to sleep in a refrigerator. In Quitman, Georgia, it’s illegal for chickens to cross the road. In Gary, Indiana, you break the law if you attend the theatre within four hours of eating garlic (that probably makes sense). You can go to jail in Dunn, North Carolina if your snoring disturbs your neighbours. In Alabama, it is against the law to wear a false mustache to church.

The Jews had a fair share of such prescriptions in the 613 commandments of the Law. For instance, you are supposed to put your right shoe on before the left shoe, but then you have to tie the left shoelace before the right shoelace. And when taking them off you go the opposite way: untie the right then the left, take off the left then the right.

The problem with multiplying laws is that soon people get confused about what is essential and what is secondary. Moreover, the demands of one law often conflicted with those of another.

Hence, when a scribe who is an expert in interpreting the Law asks Jesus which commandment is the first of all in this Sunday’s Gospel, he was probably overwhelmed by the conflict between the need to love people and the need to fulfill the competing ritual prescriptions including distancing oneself from people considered unclean.

After Jesus had filtered the commandments for him, leaving him with the essentials, you could sense his relief which made him rehearse all Jesus had said: “Well spoken, Master, what you have said is true: that he, the Lord, is one and there is no other. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.”

Jesus resolved his problem by assuring him that practical love for God and neighbour comes before ritual observances. Jesus took issue with the Pharisees who reversed the order. They excused people from taking care of their old parents so long as they willed all their wealth to the Temple (Mark 7:11-12).

Some misguided people build and fund massive religious structures today while people around them starve.

The Igbo people of south-eastern Nigeria have a saying that one has to secure the ground first before fighting for the mat, otherwise if one gets the mat with no place to lay it, one’s effort has been in vain. This is a lesson in getting our priorities right, a point which the following story helps to drive home.

An old professor was asked to speak as an expert to top management executives on personal time management. He rather chose to conduct an experiment before his distinguished audience. He placed a large empty glass vase on the table and started filling it with rocks the size of tennis balls until it was full. He then asked his audience: “Does the vase seem full to you?” and they all answered “Yes!”

He pulled a bag of pebbles from under the table and carefully poured the pebbles into the vase, shaking the vase a little so that the pebbles could reach the very bottom. He then asked: “Is the vase full?” This time, his wiser audience responded: “Perhaps not yet.” “Very good!” replied the professor as he picked up a bag of sand and poured it into the vase with care. The sand filled all the spaces between the rocks and the pebbles.

He then asked: “Is the vase full now?” And without hesitation, they all answered: “No!” The professor nodded in agreement and expectedly took the jug of water from the table and poured it into the vase up to the brim.

He then asked his audience: “What great truth does this experiment show us?”

Since it was a time management lesson, a brave voice in the group replied: “This shows us that even when our schedule is full, with a little effort we can always add some other task, some other thing to do.”

The professor says, “Not really, the experiment shows us something else; if you don’t put the big rocks in the vase first, then you will never be able to put them in afterward.”

There was a moment of silence as the point sank in. The professor continued: “What are the big rocks, the priorities in your life? Health? Family? Friends? Standing for a cause? Then, put these big rocks on your agenda first.

If you give priority to a thousand other little things — the pebbles, the sand — your life will be filled with meaninglessness and you will never find time to dedicate yourself to the truly important things.

So, never forget to ask yourself: ‘What are the important things in my life?’ Put these things at the head of your agenda.” And to the big rocks — health, family, friends — Jesus teaches us to add two others which are in fact the biggest of all – love of God and love of one’s neighbour, the two greatest commandments

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