The Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Gen 18:1-10 + Col 1:24-28 + Lk 10:38-42
July 21, 2019
“There is need of only one thing.”
Maybe you’ve been out to eat, and as you’re sitting there in the restaurant, you notice a young couple sitting in a booth, across from each other. But they’re not saying a word to each other, and they’re not even looking at each other. Maybe it’s a blind date gone wrong, or maybe they’ve been dating for some time and recently had an argument. Regardless, even though they’re sitting just a few feet from each other, these two persons are in each other’s presence only in terms of physical distance. In terms of understanding each other, they’re miles apart.
On the other hand, maybe you’ve seen an elderly couple eating together. They don’t speak to each other—not because they don’t want to—but because they don’t need to. They understand each other so well, that they can see and hear things about each other without the need for words. They can comfort, console, and encourage each other simply by being in the other person’s presence.
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In today’s Gospel Reading, we see two persons in the presence of Jesus. Yet these two sisters—Martha and Mary—are in Jesus’ presence in extremely different ways. Let’s say that Martha is the younger sister: even though she’s physically in the same house as Jesus, she doesn’t understand why He’s there. And even when He speaks, she’s not listening to him. Martha is in the presence of Jesus, but she’s not present to Him.
In other words, Martha is doing something for Jesus, but is not doing what Jesus wants. Turn this portrait of Martha around, and look into it as if it were a mirror. Do you see yourself in this portrait of Martha? Are you sincere in the works of your spiritual life, while not doing what Jesus wants you to do? Here’s one of two misconceptions about the spiritual life in today’s Gospel passage: namely, that if we are sincere in what we do spiritually, then we must be doing God’s will. But that’s false. That’s the misconception that sincerity is the measure—the yardstick—of faithfulness. In truth, we can be sincere about our spiritual life, and at the same time not be doing what God wants.
But how can you know? How can you know whether your spiritual life reflects fidelity to what God wants from you? You cannot know this, until you become like Mary. Mary is the wiser of the two sisters. Mary is in the presence of Jesus, and is also present to Him. Look at the portrait of Mary that the Gospel Reading paints for us.
For many years, as I reflected upon today’s Gospel passage, I tried to imagine the scene’s details. For example, “What furnishings did Martha have in her house?” “What meal was Martha was preparing? (what did Jesus like to eat?)” “What did the two sisters look like? (did they resemble one another?)”
But there’s one thing, that for a long time, I never wondered about: what was it that Jesus was saying to Mary as she sat at his feet? But it’s interesting: Saint Luke the Evangelist does not tell us. What Jesus said to Mary on that occasion was for Mary alone. But what Mary did in attending to Jesus’ words is for all of us to imitate.
What the evangelist actually says is that Mary “seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words.” We need to pay attention to the fact that there was no conversation between Jesus and Mary. The words flowed in only one direction: from Jesus, to Mary. And Mary listened. Mary listened to Jesus’ words: that’s “the better 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 portraits relate to each other? The saints and doctors of the Church who have reflected on this passage over the centuries have taken many lessons from this single passage. Consider three different lessons that each of needs to learn, and practice in our daily prayer.
Some of the saints point out how Martha and Mary are two different symbols. Martha symbolizes good works, while Mary symbolizes prayer. In this case, the passage’s primary lesson is that prayer is the better part. Prayer is more important than good works (such as the corporal and spiritual works of mercy).
But that’s not to say that good works are bad. It’s not that works are bad, and prayer is good. Rather, it’s that works are good, while prayer is better. In fact, good works depend upon prayer. 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 your decisions upon your prayer, then your prayer becomes the foundation of your fidelity to God. That doesn’t mean that you’ll always be correct in how you hear God’s voice in prayer, but at the same time, you cannot hear His voice if you do not listen for it.
Then there’s a second lesson that many of the saints have drawn from today’s Gospel passage. Instead of seeing Martha and Mary as two poles of the spiritual life— Martha the life of good works, and Mary the life of prayer—we can see how this passage teaches us about two different ways to pray. Here, both Martha and Mary symbolize prayer, but Martha symbolizes active forms of prayer, while Mary symbolizes listening in prayer. Listening in prayer is “the better part”, but speaking in prayer is also needed, even though speaking in prayer is demanding because there are different forms of speaking to God in prayer.
In English, it’s easy to remember the four key ways of speaking to God in prayer by remembering a simple, four-letter word: “ACTS”. The word “acts” is just another word for “works”. The four letters that make up the word “ACTS”— A, C, T and S —symbolize four different ways of being active in prayer: four different ways of being Martha while praying.
The first letter of the word “ACTS” stands for the most important of these four types of active prayer. “A” stands for “Adoration”. This is the type of prayer where we simply love God for who He is. This type of prayer is not only Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, although that’s the best type of Adoration this side of Heaven.
Nonetheless, we can adore God in our homes before we go to sleep, or when we first wake up, or when we’re on break at work. In fact, most of the images that the Bible uses to describe Heaven (for example, in the Book of Revelation) are images of the saints on their knees, adoring God: expressing their love for Him.
Here is the third lesson of today’s Gospel passage. This third lesson is sort of tucked inside the second: it’s a matter of teasing out one of the important implications about the four types of active prayer. The third lesson teaches us that there’s a priority to these four ways of speaking to God.
So the first and most important way of speaking to God is the prayer of Adoration. It’s the most important because it’s the most selfless of the active forms of prayer. It’s the one most focused upon God Himself instead of on the person who’s praying. Out of the four types of active prayer, Adoration is “the better part”. Still, the other three are also needed, and important. In fact, we might say that they’re steps by which we ascend to Adoration.
The last three letters of the word “ACTS”— C, T and S —stand for the three types of active prayer where one’s self comes more to the foreground. “C” stands for “Contrition”: sorrow for my past sins. “T” stands for “Thanksgiving”: expressing my gratitude for what God has done for me in the past. “S” stands for “Supplication” (another word for “petition”): that is, asking God to fulfill my needs in the future. You see how these three focus more attention upon myself than Adoration does.
But there’s also another difference. Contrition, thanksgiving and supplication are prayers about the past and future: what has happened, and what we hope will happen. But among the active types of prayer, the prayer of adoration is “the better part” because it rests in the present moment. Adoration is about the Presence of God: the God who is ever-Present to us, even when we are not present to Him. Adoration is simply recognizing God for who He Is: pure love. Adoration is recognizing that in all things—even in our sins—no matter where we are and what we face, God is with us.
 There’s yet another way to distinguish the importance of the four types of active prayer. Consider which of these four the saints in Heaven partake in. The saints have to need for prayers of sorrow. Nor do they have need of petition (for themselves, although they pray for those in Purgatory and on earth). So the four types of active prayer in descending order of importance are: Adoration, Thanksgiving, Petition and Contrition.
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer [1632-1675]