The Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Zechariah 9:9-10 + Romans 8:9,11-13 + Matthew 11:25-30
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”
There are three ways in which the Lord Jesus wants to give us rest. Each of these three types of rest corresponds to a certain type of labor and burden.
First off, there are those who labor and are burdened like Martha in the famous Gospel passage about Jesus visiting the home of the sisters Martha and Mary. Do you remember this story? When Jesus arrives, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, listening attentively to His every word.
When Martha sees this, she complains, since Martha is tending to the practical matters of hospitality. We might have sympathy for Martha and her complaints, because—as we all know—practical matters have to be tended to. The dining room table does not set itself. After all, it’s not like Martha was off watching cat videos on YouTube while Jesus spoke to Mary.
Nonetheless, Jesus does criticize Martha, and at the same time commends Mary for choosing what He calls “the better part”. As is often the case with Sacred Scripture, we have to engage in some measure of speculation. If we’re tempted to feel sympathy for Martha when Jesus criticizes Martha, we need to remember that on this occasion, as in all things, Jesus knows more about the situation than we do.
We might imagine, for example, that perhaps the sisters Martha and Mary had decided to split the preparations for Jesus’ visit 50/50. But Mary did her share of the preparations in the morning, while Martha misspent her time that morning (sort of like the parable of the ten virgins waiting for the bridegroom: only five kept their lamps lit). So Mary was ready to receive Jesus when He arrived. But at that point, Martha’s preparations had to be done while ignoring the presence of Jesus in her home.
Every one of us has labors in this world, but we don’t always tend to them in a prudent manner. Sometimes we even take unnecessary labors upon our shoulders. Those unnecessary labors, as well as the necessary labors that we don’t tend to prudently, make us like Martha: we are not ready to receive the Lord when He wants to enter under our roof to give us a measure of rest.
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The second type of labor, and the second type of rest, are very different from the first. The first type of labor and rest has to do with stopping our worldly activity in order to enter into the presence of the Lord in prayer. However, once we do enter into prayer, there’s a different challenge that we face.
You know, that famous Gospel passage about Jesus visiting the home of Martha and Mary: it ends with Jesus’ criticism of Martha, and His commendation of Mary for choosing “the better part”. The passage does not continue. We never learn how Martha responded to Jesus’ criticism. Did she complain to Jesus that His criticism was unfair? Or did she humbly accept Jesus’ criticism and join Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet? We’re not told.
However, imagine what that would have looked like as Martha and Mary sat at the feet of Jesus. It’s easy to imagine that Martha, sitting at the feet of Jesus, would have continually interrupted Jesus. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they….” “Jesus, would you send your grace upon my nephew? He’s having trouble finding work.” “Why yes, Martha, I’d be happy to bless your nephew. Blessed are the pure of heart, for they….” “Oh, Jesus, would you send some grace upon my left knee? It’s been acting up again.” “Certainly, Martha, I’d be happy to bless your left knee. Blessed are the silent, for they shall hear the Word of God.”
The point is that being in the presence of Jesus is not enough. We also have to be present to Jesus: that is, listening for Him to speak to us. It’s not enough to rest from worldly labors to sit at His feet. We also have to rest from talking at Jesus, and instead listen for Him to speak.
That’s not to say that there’s no place in prayer for speaking to Jesus. That’s why we teach our children and grandchildren the Church’s treasury of prayers, beginning with the Sign of the Cross, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. The older that our children and grandchildren get, the more prayers we teach them, so that they have committed to memory a wealth of prayers to call on. This type of prayer, along with prayers that we voice to God spontaneously from our heart in our own words, is called “vocal prayer”. In the life of every Christian, these vocal prayers are the start of prayer. But they’re not the end goal.
There’s a second stage to prayer, which follows and builds upon vocal prayer. It’s simply called meditation. Meditation consists of using one’s imagination and reason to reflect upon the Mysteries of our Faith, such as are stated in the Creed that we profess each Sunday. For example, in the prayer of meditation, a Christian might picture the scene of the Agony in the Garden. Or the Christian might ponder what it means for Jesus Christ to be both, at the same time, fully God and fully man.
This second stage of prayer—the prayer of meditation—is important for the Christian to cultivate. So is the first stage of vocal prayer. However, the first stage and the second stage are designed to lead to the third stage of prayer: the best part of prayer, where instead of speaking to God, one listens for God, resting in His Presence.
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So the first type of labor is our labor in the world. Jesus calls us on occasion from this labor to rest in His Presence in prayer. But part of prayer is itself a labor: the work of vocal prayer and meditation. After the labor of talking to Jesus in prayer, we need to rest more deeply in His Presence by listening for Him to speak.
Even deeper is the third type of rest to which Jesus calls us: that is, eternal rest. Life on earth, as we hear in the Book of Ecclesiastes, is full of toil and labor. We don’t know how many days we will have on this earth to labor for the Lord.
Fr. Reinhard Eck, the long-time pastor of St. Joseph’s in Andale, fostered a beautiful custom at parish funerals. Following the funeral Mass, a procession would make its way to the cemetery. While the procession continued towards the gravesite, Father Eck would offer many prayers. One of these prayers he would preface by saying, “For the person among us who will be the next to die. Hail Mary, full of grace….”
You could always tell who were visitors to the parish, because the look on their faces told you that they were taken aback by these words. They thought that the funeral services were all about the death of the dearly departed, not about their own death.
But living out our Catholic Faith on this earth is all about preparing for the hour of our death. Whether we lived the Faith while on earth has everything to do with whether we will—on the other side of the doorway of death—experience eternal rest: the end goal of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel passage. That’s why at the end of the graveside service, the Church prays three times for this lasting rest:
“Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord.”
“And let perpetual light shine upon her.”
“May she rest in peace.”
“May her soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”