busyness and idleness

Yesterday morning I managed to find a $650 flight that afternoon to Germany, for a man who showed up here who needed to get home before his visa ran out. (That's one good thing about living here in community--you're always running into people who need help.) But even after the flight was booked he was still searching for lower fares or alternative flights. It was like, in the stress of the moment, he needed to be doing something about his problem, even though there was really nothing he could do himself (and in this case, nothing more to be done).

It reminded me of this story about the Greek philosopher Diogenes:

One day, in the midst of the town's frantic war preparations, Diogenes began rolling around an empty wheelbarrow, very industriously. The townsfolk, accustomed to his antics, laughingly asked him what he thought he was doing this time, and he responded, "I just wanted to show everyone I was doing my part for the war effort."

While Heather was gone, I thought quite a bit about busyness and idleness. And that these can't be judged simply by activity. The crucial thing is not just to be moving around, doing something. What matters is whether or not we're doing what is needed, helpful, important.

Thoughts about idleness always remind me of the parable of the talents (Mt 25). Jesus has such harsh words for the last servant:
He who had received the one talent came forward, saying, "Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours."

But his master answered him, "You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? ...Take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth."
This story seems to condemn wastefulness and idleness. But what ought we not to waste? What are the "talents" we are supposed to invest and increase? In the story money is spoken of, and if taken literally it seems to echo what we hear everywhere: Don't waste money (or time, since "time is money"); don't waste our abilities, physical or mental; don't waste the resources we have available...

But are those the kinds of things that are valuable to God?

One thing I noticed in the parable is the reference to "sowing," which brings to mind the parable of the sower (earlier in Matthew 13.1-23). And these two parables also share an identical saying; here's the line from the parable of the sower:
[Jesus] answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away." (Mt 13.11-12)
Here it's clearly not material resources that are being spoken of, but "the secrets of the kingdom of heaven." Spiritual resources. Spiritual potential which we can invest in and nurture to maturity (and return to God), and which last forever. This brings to mind other similar sayings of Jesus:
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal." (Mt 6.19-20)

"Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you..." (Jn 6.27)

Our spiritual life is what should not be hidden, neglected, left idle. And this doesn't just mean going to church or searching the bible for more and more religious trivia. It means seeking out the "secrets of the kingdom," the way of kingdom life that is so different from how others live, and changing our lives to become more and more like Jesus' life. This is what we must invest our time and energy in.

But, ironically, our attempts to avoid idleness usually lead to an outward busyness that does nothing for us spiritually. Our physical and mental busyness becomes simply a cover for our spiritual idleness. We do much, but we do not grow. We rush around with an empty wheelbarrow. Instead, we should be setting everything else aside to invest ourselves in the "one thing needful," the most important thing in life:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it."