Fr. Roger J. Landry
Holy Family Parish, Manhattan
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
July 17, 2016
Gen 18:1-10, Ps 15, Col 1:24-28, Lk 10:38-42
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
The following text guided today’s homily:
The Distraction at the Root of Much Modern Unhappiness
One of the most important things in human life is to learn how to set and keep proper priorities. Often the difference between a happy and unhappy life, between a rewarding and a wasted one, centers on whether we’ve set the right goals and perseveringly sought to achieve them. And it is getting harder today for people to set and achieve these priorities. So many of our technological advances, while offering great possibilities to improve our lives, often just leave us torn apart by a list of to-dos that just seems to keep growing, enslaving us to so many tasks that there seems to be no time for the things that deep down we know are most important.
A few years back there was a poll of American women that revealed that their greatest desire is for more time; there is not enough time in a day, they say, to accomplish all of the things they have to do, from work, to taxiing their kids from one event to another, to various chores around the home, to the countless other time-consuming activities that occupy their ever-diminishing waking hours. Scores of American men have long complained that, because of all of the demands at work and the fulfillment of other duties, they have less and less time to do the things that are really fulfilling. Even many teenagers and young kids today have to keep a detailed calendar because with lessons, sports, homework, and even play dates, their schedule has become overwhelming. To make matters more complicated across the generations, technological advances like cell phones, email, texts, Facebook, and Twitter has created a culture of the nanosecond, where those contacting us have gotten so used to an immediate response that we feel we must drop what we’re doing and answer right away. Life has become like the whack-o-mole game that many of us used to play at arcades, where black moles pop up in front of us and we have to whack them down continuously with a mallet. The only difference is that what we’re about is not a game and that the moles are coming up not just in front of us in five or six predictable holes but all around us all the time.
To all of us in this frenetic era, who feel drawn-and-quartered by seemingly having to do so many things well at once, Jesus, with words shocking to our 21st century sensibilities, presents us today a summary of the Good News. He who came to set the captives free (Lk 4:18), who is the Truth incarnate (Jn 14:6), who knows everything and who cannot lie, tells us in one sentence, as he told Martha, the secret to our liberation: “You are worried and distracted by many things. Only one thing is necessary.
Just like in last week’s Gospel in which Jesus helped us to prioritize among all our moral duties the first and most important thing of all — to love God with all our minds, hearts, souls and strengths and to love our neighbor in the way we ourselves wished to be loved — today he helps us anew to know what the real goal for which we ought to be striving hardest of all needs to be. The crucial question to be answered is, “What is that one thing?” Before we turn to what Jesus says in the Gospel, each of us should ask, “What is the most important priority of my life right now?” and “What should be my priority?” Our answers to these question will reveal a great deal about who we are and in what we presently place our treasure.
We’re marking this year the 25th anniversary of a popular movie that made a big impact on me as I was a junior in college. Like so many people of university age in every generation, I was looking for a clear sense of direction among the various choices facing me. The movie was called “City Slickers” in which three big-city buddies from New York in mid-life crises head to the southwest to find themselves by, of all things, leading a cattle-run. The cowboy in charge was the always intimidating, Oscar-winning, Jack Palance. In one climactic scene, Billy Crystal is riding his horse next to Palance and Palance starts to talk about the various lessons he’s learned from life. From his confused agony, Crystal pleads for Palance’s southwestern wisdom about what the meaning of life is. Palance held up his index finger. “It’s this,” Palance hoarsely declared. “What’s this?,” Crystal retorted, interrogatively holding up his own index finger. “It’s one thing,” Palance interpreted. “Well, what is this one thing?,” Crystal desperately begged. Palance punctuated the conversation: “That’s what you have to find out!” While Palance didn’t give Crystal the answer, he set him on the right path by indicating that life is far less complicated than we often make it.
What Mary Realized that Martha Didn’t
In the scene from today’s Gospel, Jesus does much more. He who is the Way not only sets us in the right direction, but indicates to us what the conclusion of that path will be, by his words and deeds in interaction with the two sisters in Bethany. Martha and Mary welcome Jesus to their home, but they seek to welcome him in two different ways. Martha seeks to please the Lord by doing various things for him. The Gospel doesn’t specify what she was doing, but anyone who has hosted a guest knows the types of things that would have characterized her hospitality. She would have been finishing up whatever cleaning might be done, setting up the place to eat, and doubtless preparing a meal.
In doing all of this, she was following in the sacred footsteps of Abraham and Sarah from the first reading, both of whom, in welcoming the three men, spared no effort. Sarah at once baked three cakes with choice flour; Abraham, at 99, ran to the herd to select a tender calf to be prepared and served it with curds and milk. Their great hospitality was rewarded. Little did they know they were serving God himself under the disguise of those three men, whom Abraham mysteriously greeted in the singular, “My Lord!” (The Fathers of the Church, as well as the great byzantine iconographers like Rublev, saw in these three persons addressed collectively as a singular “Lord” the Blessed Trinity). And it was that same God who promised them that, within a year — when Abraham was 100 and Sarah 91! — he would grant them a son, Isaac.
When Martha, however, similarly spares no effort to welcome God-incarnate with the same attention to detail, and solicits Jesus’ authoritative help in persuading her sister Mary to do her fair share of the preparations, Martha receives what at first glance seems to be a mild rebuke. To her plea, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me,” Jesus, rather than doing so, says to Martha, “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
What Jesus was not saying here was that Martha’s efforts were somehow evil or unappreciated. Shortly before he entered their home, Jesus, as we heard last week, gave the parable of the Good Samaritan, praising the one who made the effort to take care of another in contrast to those who did nothing. In several other places in the Gospel he praised service of others: he said that he himself had come among us as one who serves (Lk 22:27); he washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper and told them to do the same (Jn 13:12-14); he promised to gird himself with an apron and wait on those at the heavenly banquet (Lk 12:37); and he said that the greatest among us would be the one who serves the rest (Mt 23:11). Jesus was clearly not castigating Martha for her loving service. What he was saying to her, however, was that none of those efforts was strictly-speaking essential, that therefore there was no reason to get worked about them, and that there was something more important, something that Mary realized and that Martha as yet hadn’t.
Here’s what Mary recognized: Jesus had come to their home primarily not to be fed, but to feed. The welcome he sought most was their time, their friendship, their love, their open ears and open hearts. Mary understood this and sat at Jesus’ feet listening to him as if nothing in the rest of the world really mattered — because, in fact, Jesus implies, nothing in the rest of the world really does matter anywhere near as much as that. Jesus once said in a parable, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Mt 13:45-46). Jesus was for Mary that pearl of great price more valuable than everything else in the jewelry collection of her life combined.
Mary showed how much she understood the practical consequences of Jesus’ value when he and his apostles visited their home again, just a few days before his death. St. John gives us the scene: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served [some things never change!], and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (Jn 12:1-8). The aromatic nard would have cost Mary almost a full year’s salary, but she spent it entirely on Jesus because she knew he was worth every ounce of it and more. Jesus was her treasure and worth everything she had. Jesus was the “better part,” better than anything or anyone else. He was the one thing necessary.
Choosing the Better Part
In these interactions in Bethany with Martha and Mary, Jesus was indicating to them, to the apostles, and to us today the most important priorities of all so that we, too, might choose the better part, by identifying the most important thing of all and then setting our minds and hearts on acting in accordance with that priority. As Steven Covey, perhaps the greatest of all the modern self-help authors, recognized in his classic work The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the problem for most people is that at practical level they spend too much of their time doing unimportant things that they think are urgent — like answering the phone, or responding to texts, WhatsApp messages and emails right away— while they should be spending more of their time doing more important, less urgent things, like praying, spending time with their families, reading and learning, getting involved in activities that can make a real difference in the lives of others and especially the young. The secret to a fulfilled life, Covey said, is to resolve to say yes to the most important things and to say no to the less important activities. It’s to choose the better part.
So let’s get practical, because each of us wants one day to have Jesus say of us what he said of Mary in today’s Gospel, that we have chosen the better part and we won’t be separated from that Better Part even into eternity. Let’s ponder three applications.
The first is our hospitality toward Jesus. Like the sisters of Bethany, each of us is called to welcome Christ into our homes, both our physical homes and the spiritual abode of our hearts and souls. Do we welcome Jesus and sit at his feet in prayer? Do we have a time and a place where we pray regularly and say yes to him and no to the series finale of CSI or Red Sox-Yankees? Christ knocks on the doors of each of our hearts and homes wanting to come in — as we’ll pray in the Communion Antiphon later — but how often and how much do we invite him in? One of the great family prayers is the Rosary, when we, together with Jesus’ mother Mary, ponder all Jesus teaches us in 20 of the most important mysteries of his life and the life of the Church. We can likewise sit and listen to him speak to us in Sacred Scripture, knowing that to listen to God give us the Good News each day is so much more important than reading or listening to the bad news that normally covers the front page of the daily paper or evening newscast. The question is whether we, like Martha, are too caught up, anxious, and distracted by so many other less important things that we’re welcoming into our minds and souls each day that we no longer have the energy or space to invite in Christ. It’s Christ, however, who ought to be invited in first. That leads to the second point.
Second, we’re called to imitate Mary in choosing the better part and truly allowing Jesus to feed us as he desires to do. It’s not enough for us to know what our priority should be. We also have to choose it. It’s not enough just to know where the treasure is buried, we need to make the choice to sell off other things that own us so that we can buy the field. That means reorienting our life to make Jesus truly its center. One of the most common problems facing many even faithful Catholics today, and preventing our spiritual growth, is that we put many things ahead of God, on Sunday, on Monday and throughout the week. I like to call this mixed up set of priorities the “Jesus is an important part of my life” syndrome. We try to squeeze Jesus into our schedule if we still have room if we’re not exhausted after having completed all the other activities we believe we “have to” do, whereas what we’re supposed to be doing is making God truly the God of our life, giving him first place, and then centering all the rest we do around our relationship with him. If only “one thing is necessary,” then if we do that one thing and fail to do everything else, then our life will still be successful; if only one thing is necessary, however, and we do everything else except that one thing, then ultimately we would have wasted our life. That’s what we must grasp, will and choose. Those who center their life around Jesus will have a totally different attitude, for example, toward Eucharistic adoration, toward daily Mass, and toward adult education opportunities where Jesus seeks to feed us than those who are just trying to fit him in, as if Jesus is just one more important person or duty in a long series. To choose Jesus as the best part of all was Mary of Bethany’s great wisdom and we will be wiser the more we imitate her.
The last application is to Martha. Martha often gets a bad rap in Church history in comparison to her sister because many interpret what Jesus did as a spiritual smack down, somehow denigrating the loving service Martha was doing for him in the kitchen. Jesus wasn’t at all minimizing the importance of what Martha was doing but was focusing on how she was doing it. The last thing Jesus would want would be for all of us merely to sit at his feet and allow everyone else to work to serve us. That’s certainly not the Christian way or the way Jesus adopted. Like Martha, we are called to work hard serving others but we’re supposed to do it with the spirit of Mary. That’s what the sanctification of our work is all about, to have Martha’s hands and Mary’s contemplative heart, so that we won’t be distracted by many other things, but so focused on Jesus in work, at school and in family life that we’ll be getting fed by him in action so that we might feed others not just by our work but with the One working within us. That’s the vocation of every Christian. And one of the most important forms of service we can give to others is to help them to form the true priorities that will bring them to happiness, holiness and heaven. Jesus wants to send us as missionaries to show them by our witness and words how to choose the better part, how happily to make God the true priority of one’s life, in the midst of so many modern distractions and anxieties that leave people without a sure compass and spinning out of control. Each of us is called to work as hard as Martha, out of love for God and others, in setting an eloquent, attractive example like Mary, the example of a life with Jesus at the center.
The Modern Bethany
At today’s Mass, in the modern Bethany of this Church, we, too, like Mary, have a chance to imitate Mary in welcoming Jesus into our life as he deserves and wishes to be welcomed. This weekend’s Mass is being celebrated Ad Orientem, with priests and people all turned together showing that we’re all focused on God. In this Church of the Holy Family, with the enormous statue of the Risen Jesus in the center of our Sanctuary, we can all look at his pierced feet and sit, kneel and stand adoring them, as Jesus seeks to feed us with his word and nourish us even more profoundly with his flesh and blood. Today we ask him, through this nourishment, to give us the courage to reorder the priorities of our life, and to base our lives on what he has reminded us today. Jesus is the one thing necessary. Mary chose the better part. Now we beg Saints Martha and Mary and all the saints to intercede for us before Jesus’ feet in heaven for the grace to make the same choice today, tomorrow and forever in such a contagious way that we might help the whole world reprioritize to its salvation.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 GN 18:1-10A
as he sat in the entrance of his tent,
while the day was growing hot.
Looking up, Abraham saw three men standing nearby.
When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them;
and bowing to the ground, he said:
“Sir, if I may ask you this favor,
please do not go on past your servant.
Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet,
and then rest yourselves under the tree.
Now that you have come this close to your servant,
let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves;
and afterward you may go on your way.”
The men replied, “Very well, do as you have said.”Abraham hastened into the tent and told Sarah,
“Quick, three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.”
He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice steer,
and gave it to a servant, who quickly prepared it.
Then Abraham got some curds and milk,
as well as the steer that had been prepared,
and set these before the three men;
and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.
They asked Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?”
He replied, “There in the tent.”
One of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year,
and Sarah will then have a son.”
Responsorial Psalm PS 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
One who walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart
and slanders not with his tongue.
R. He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who harms not his fellow man,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
by whom the reprobate is despised,
while he honors those who fear the LORD.
R. He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
One who does these things
shall never be disturbed.
R. He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Reading 2 COL 1:24-28
Brothers and sisters:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,
and in my flesh I am filling up
what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ
on behalf of his body, which is the church,
of which I am a minister
in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me
to bring to completion for you the word of God,
the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.
But now it has been manifested to his holy ones,
to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory
of this mystery among the Gentiles;
it is Christ in you, the hope for glory.
It is he whom we proclaim,
admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
Alleluia CF. LK 8:15
Blessed are they who have kept the word with a generous heart
and bring a harvest through perseverance.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel LK 10:38-42
Jesus entered a village
where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
She had a sister named Mary
who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
“Lord, do you not care
that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me.”
The Lord said to her in reply,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her.”