WIT and WISDOM: Distinguish between what is important and what is urgent

The ancient book of Nehemiah begins: ‘These are the memoirs of Nehemiah, son of Hacaliah’.

It’s a fascinating record of the passion of one influential man to repair the broken walls of Jerusalem.

And against all odds he did it, in 52 days. He had many opponents in the city who for whatever reason did not want him to succeed and tried every trick in the book to stop him.

At one point Nehemiah and his associates were forced to work with a sword belted to their side. And when the threats failed the enemies of the project tried a different tack. They sent a message asking him to meet them at one of the villages in the plain of Ono, ostensibly to discuss Nehemiah’s plan, which by that time was nearing completion.

Four times they sent the message, but Nehemiah suspected it was a ploy to injure or kill him. Certainly they had no desire to assist with the divinely inspired work.

And Nehemiah uttered these words: ‘I am engaged in a great work, so I can’t come. Why should I stop working to come and meet with you?’ The man had focus; he had mastered one of life’s great skills; to distinguish between the important and the urgent.

There’s a similar lesson in Matthew’s account of the gospel. One of Jesus’ disciples wanted some time off and he said, ‘Let me go and bury my father before following you.’

Now it’s not clear whether the culture of that time placed on him a duty to remain at home until after his father had died, or perhaps there was indeed an imminent funeral. Either way, what Jesus said sounds truly shocking to our genteel ears; ‘Follow me. Let the dead bury their dead.’

I once knew a young man whose ageing father was attended by three daughters – I say attended because their father was well able to look after himself, but they had allowed him to come to expect to be waited on hand and foot and he enjoyed being the centre of attention. The father was a harsh, demeaning and emotionally draining man who continually undermined and humiliated his family.

And the young man, who had a wife and three small children of his own as well as a demanding job, decided that his time of routinely visiting the old man at least once a week had run its course.

The girls weren’t best pleased but as the young man bethought himself he said those were the words he felt burned into his head: ‘You have the right to live your own life. Let the dead bury their own dead.’

Nehemiah was right, Jesus was right, and I think that young man was right too.


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