What Is Spirituality, Really?

64040The story is told in the Talmud of Baroka, a pious rabbi who accompanied Elijah to his town’s marketplace. Perhaps fishing for a compliment, the rabbi asked if anyone there was destined for the world to come. Elijah pointed out a rather nondescript man who was not even dressed as a Jew. Puzzled, the rabbi approached the man and asked him what he did. The man replied that he was a prison guard, an unlikely occupation, one would think, for a holy man. What did he do as a prison guard that made him worthy of the world to come? In fulfilling his duties he made sure Jewish prisoners were able to follow the obligations of Torah. He also protected the honor of young Jewish women when they caught the eye of Gentile men. He dressed as a Gentile rather than as a Jew so he could alert the leaders of the Jewish community when the government was taking actions that would be detrimental to them.

While the rabbi was pondering this, Elijah pointed out two brothers walking by. These were also destined for the world to come. When the rabbi asked them what they did, they said, “We are clowns. We bring cheer to the downhearted. When we see two people quarrel, we go and make peace between them.” The pious rabbi was disappointed. The only people Elijah pointed out as destined for the world to come were a prison guard and two clowns! What about the great Torah scholars? What about the mystics probing the deep things of God? What of the great benefactors supporting the poor and caring for the physical needs of the community?

Norman Solomon, who tells this story in his book Judaism: A Very Short Introduction, comments, “This curious tale is aimed at people who think they know what is means to be ‘spiritual.’ The ‘heroes of the spirit’ Elijah shows the conventional rabbi Baroka, are not the ostentatiously pious, not even the learned and devout….They may be apparently ordinary individuals, not even overtly religious, whose quiet deeds enhance the quality of life around them—the carers, the compassionate, those who use their talents to ease the burdens of humanity.”

Years ago when I arrived as pastor at First Covenant Church in Salina, Kansas, a dedicated woman who worked tirelessly and mostly invisibly on behalf of the church asked me, “Will you ever preach on Mary and Martha?” A bit taken aback, I replied, “I suppose so.” “Well,” she replied rather fiercely, “when you do, put in a good word for Martha.”

I knew what she meant. Martha, working her fingers to the bone in the kitchen, doing the necessary work to keep body and soul together, too often gets the short end of the homiletical stick. Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, is frequently depicted as the “spiritual” one, the preferred one, while frazzled Martha is seen as less than spiritual, too busy to listen to Jesus.

Martha, working her fingers to the bone in the kitchen, doing the necessary work to keep body and soul together, too often gets the short end of the homiletical stick.

For Pietism, our denominational seedbed, ordinary life matters. The ploughboy and the housewife, the merchant and the schoolteacher, could—and indeed should—be every bit as “spiritual” as the pastor or evangelist. Their work of plowing fields and cleaning floors, selling dry goods and teaching children, was not “unspiritual” or secular. It was the work of God, done for God’s glory and neighbor’s good. They were not less spiritual because they could not spend the day studying the Scriptures or engaged monastic-like in prayer. Like the prison guard and the clowns in the Talmud, their work enabled the life and health of the community. They could, of course, pray and direct their attention to God throughout the day. But their very work, done to the glory of God and for the good of the community, could be their prayer.

Whatever your work, however mundane and unnoticed, done to the glory of God it is every bit as spiritual as that done in the sanctuaries and studies of the pious. When we act for the glory of God and the good of others, there is no ordinary person and no ordinary work.


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  • “Even if it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, Go on out and sweep streets like Michael Angelo painted pictures! ….. Sweep Streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry! Sweep streets so that all of the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say ‘here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well!” …. When you do this you have mastered the length of life.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
    I am inspired by the thought that whatever has been put into our hands to do on this earth, whatever gifts we are given, we can use them in God’s service. Listening to MLK talk about the street sweeper, helps me to keep things in perspective. All parts of the body of Christ are important and crucial to the life of the community of faith! Value what you do because of who you are and value those around you not only for their work but their person as a fellow traveler or community member! Thank you Jay

  • Thank you John. This article was so perfect to read after a woman’s study group who met last night.

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