The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Genesis 18:1-10 + Colossians 1:24-28 + Luke 10:38-42
July 17, 2016
“Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Husbands, you probably will not be able to relate to this scenario, but stretch your imagination. Imagine that you have put your foot in your mouth during an argument with your wife, and you are in the doghouse. Actually, you have put both feet in your mouth, and the dog has kicked you out of the doghouse, you’ve messed up so bad. Now maybe that’s never happened to you, but if not, let’s pretend I’m talking about “your brother”.
So “your brother” realizes he needs to mend the fences with his wife, and he decides to take her out to eat: not to Spangles, but to one of those restaurants on the east side with cloth napkins. That’s how bad your brother has messed things up.
Your brother and his wife get to the restaurant and are seated at a lovely table with flowers and a lighted candle. Actually it was a long day at work for your brother, and he’s pretty hungry, so he’s eager to look over the menu. But your waiter—his name is Henri—tells you that the restaurant has been completely swamped with customers all day long, and their kitchen has only two entrees left for them to choose from.
Henri explains: “The first I highly recommend. It is a pound of our very finest meatloaf, and it is only $9.99.” Your brother says, “OK, and what’s the other choice?” “Well,” Henri hedges a little, “if you must know, the other choice is sixteen ounces of Ribeye steak. But it only arrived from the Flint Hills this morning, so it’s still very tender. And it does come with a loaded baked potato with all the fixings, and glazed carrots.” Your sister-in-law loves glazed carrots. Your brother asks, “And how much is this second entrée?” Henri replies, “It is $9.99.”
Your brother and sister-in-law shake their heads. Surely the waiter has made some mistake. They ask: “So you’re saying that either we can order a pound of meatloaf for $9.99, or a 16-ounce Ribeye with loaded baked potato and glazed carrots for $9.99?” “That is correct,” Henri states, “but the meatloaf is topped with an exquisite ketchup!”
Which entrée do you think your brother and sister-in-law are going to order?
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Jesus today is in the home of Martha and Mary. These two sisters—as often is the case between siblings—are very different from each other. You and I have a choice after reflecting on these two sisters. We can be like Martha, or we can be like Mary. We can choose meatloaf, or we can choose a Ribeye meal. Or perhaps there’s even a third option that we also might consider.
First, reflect on Martha. Martha is physically in the same house as Jesus (in fact, Jesus has come all the way to her own home!). But when He speaks, instead of listening to Jesus, Martha is doing her own thing. Martha is in the presence of Jesus, but she is not present to Him.
Then we have to ask: what exactly is Martha doing instead of listening to Jesus? She would certainly be the first to explain that she’s working for Jesus. Her work is all about Jesus. But here’s the kicker: she’s not doing what Jesus wants her to do.
This sets before us one of the key distinctions of the Catholic spiritual life. This is the distinction between sincerity and fidelity. Some persons believe that as long as they’re sincere in what they do in life, then they’re being faithful to what God wants them to do. This is a misconception, and this misconception can lead to many dead-ends in the spiritual life. Sincerity may be a virtue, but it is not a measure of fidelity.
Imagine you’ve gone to a fine restaurant for a fine meal, and you and your dining companions all order the finest porterhouse steaks. Then, after forty-five minutes of waiting, the waiter finally comes to your table with a tray of plates, and he serves each of you… burnt meatloaf! And there’s not even ketchup on top! Doing your best to be patient, you say to the waiter, “Look, none of us ordered meatloaf. Each of us ordered a porterhouse.” The waiter looks very sheepish and replies, “I am sincerely sorry! I sincerely heard you say you wanted meatloaf.” Then he says, “Enjoy your meatloaf!”, and walks away. Is that our approach to the Sacrament of Confession, and the yawning gulf that often exists between our sincerity and God’s Will?
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Reflect, then, on Mary. In today’s Gospel passage, Mary is in the presence of Jesus, and is also present to Jesus. Mary shows us that the yardstick that measures our fidelity is listening.
Mary listens to Jesus. But what did Jesus say to her? It’s telling that St. Luke the Evangelist does not reveal to us what Jesus said to her. What Jesus said was for Mary alone. But that Mary listened is for all of us to imitate: to listen, so that we might faithfully obey God.
What the evangelist does reveal to us is that Mary “seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words.” There are at least two points that the evangelist makes in this sentence. First: Mary was seated, not standing for service, like a waiter who takes your order. Whatever Jesus said to her, it was not marching orders, but something so deep that Mary had to take it “sitting down”, to ponder it thoroughly.
Second: there was no dialogue between the two. It was not two-way communication. The words flowed in only one direction: from Jesus, to Mary. And Mary listened. Mary listened to Jesus’ words: this is what Jesus calls “the better part”. Listening is the better part of prayer, and the foundational part of prayer, if not its only part.
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Now, what do we get when we put these two portraits—of Martha and Mary—together, and look at them side by side? How do the two relate to each other? The saints and doctors of the Church who have reflected on this passage have taken many lessons from this scene.
Some of the saints point out how Martha is a symbol of good works, and Mary is a symbol of prayer. From this perspective, the primary lesson of the passage is that prayer is “the better part”. Prayer is better than good works. But that’s not to say that good works are bad.
It’s not that works are bad, and prayer is good. We are not like those Protestants who believe in faith alone, without works. Rather, it’s that works are good, and prayer is better. From this, we see the reason why Martha is anxious and worried: not because she’s doing something bad. Martha is anxious and worried because she did not put prayer first. Her works do not flow from her prayer. In your own daily life, when you put prayer first, and base decisions upon prayer, then this becomes the foundation of our fidelity to God. That doesn’t mean that we’ll always be correct in hearing God’s voice in our prayer, but we can be sure that we’re on the right path.
But then, there’s another lesson that many of the saints have drawn from this passage. Every passage of Scripture is like a diamond, which you could hold up to the sun and turn in your hand. The diamond has many different facets, each of which reflects the brilliance of the sun in different ways.
We can see today’s Gospel as teaching us about two different ways to pray. From this perspective, both Martha and Mary symbolize prayer, but Martha symbolizes active forms of prayer, and Mary symbolizes “the better part” of prayer.
It’s easy to remember this by means of a four-letter word: “ACTS”, as in Acts of the Apostles. Each of the four letters—“A-C-T-S”—stands for a different form of prayer. The first letter is represented by Mary, while the latter three letters are represented by Martha.
The letter “A” stands for adoration. This is “the better part” of prayer. This is the type of prayer where we simply rest in the beautiful Presence of God. We turn our attention away from ourselves, and focus solely on God.
In describing this prayer of adoration, we’re not talking only about Eucharistic Adoration, before the Blessed Sacrament. One can offer prayers of adoration in one’s home, or walking through a field. Still, Eucharistic Adoration is praised highly by the Church as the most perfect form of adoration one can participate in this side of Heaven: though that’s assuming that a person truly is offering prayers of adoration, and not reading a book, or talking to God about oneself, or listening to music.
In contrast, the last three letters of the word “ACTS” — “C”, “T” and “S” — stand for the three types of prayer that have more to do with oneself than does the prayer of adoration. “C” stands for “Contrition”: that is, sorrow for our past sins or the sins of others. “T” stands for “Thanksgiving”: that is, expressing our gratitude for what God has done for us in the past. “S” stands for “Supplication” (which is another word for “petition”): that is, asking God to fulfill our needs in the future. You see how these three focus more on ourselves: our sins; thanks for what God has done for us; and our petitions.
It’s not that these latter three forms of prayer are bad. Prayers of contrition, thanksgiving, and sorrow are necessary in the valley of tears here below. But just as our life of faith needs to be rooted in listening, so our life of prayer needs to be rooted in adoration, in a movement away from oneself, and towards God alone.