Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Sixteenth Sunday in OT, Year C
July 18, 2004
Gen 18:1-10; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42
1) To our 21st century American sensibilities, Jesus says something positively shocking in today’s Gospel. He who is the Truth incarnate, who knows everything and who cannot lie, tells us, as he told Martha, “Only one thing is necessary.” In the final analysis, there is only one thing that we have to do.
2) We live in an age and a culture in which we think that there are so many things that we “have to” do. A recent poll of American women 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 various things that they have to do, they have less and less time to do the things that are really important. Even many teenagers today use Palm Pilots or pocket organizers to keep their calendar straight, because they have so many different commitments from day to day. 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 presents us a summary of the Good News. He who came to set the captives free (Lk 4:18) tells us in one sentence the secret to our liberation: “You are worried and distracted by many things. Only one thing is necessary.”
3) So the crucial question is: What is that one thing? Before we turn to what Jesus says in the Gospel, each of us should ask, “How would I answer that question?” Our answer to the question will reveal a great deal about who we are and in what we place our treasure.
4) I remember very well a scene from the 1991 movie City Slickers in which three big-city buddies 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 that life is far less complicated than we make it.
5) 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 flower; Abraham ran to the heard to selected 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 Rubliov, 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 86 and Sarah was 91! — he would grant them a son, Isaac.
6) Yet when Martha 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 gave the parable of the Good Samaritan (which we had last Sunday), praising the one who made the effort to take care of another in contrast to those who did nothing. 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 her for that service. What he was saying to Martha, however, was that none of those efforts were strictly-speaking necessary, 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 didn’t.
7) Here’s what Mary recognized: Jesus had come to their home not to be fed, but to feed. The welcome he sought most was their time, their friendship, their love. 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. 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 put together.
8 ) 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” … Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (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.
9) Mary’s example, praised by Jesus, should prompt us to ask ourselves: Do we behave like Mary? How often do we seek merely to sit at Jesus’ feet in private prayer? How frequently do we invite him into OUR homes, into our family life, by praying to him as a family, by opening up the Gospel and listening to his word, or by meditating on what he said and did in the various mysteries of his life in the Rosary? When He lovingly comes to spend time here in this house [St. Francis Xavier Church] that we and those before us have built for him, how attentively do we listen to what he tells us in the Gospel? When we look in the missalette and see the words, “long form,” for example, do we get excited … or upset? Are we in a hurry to “get Mass over with” as soon as possible — as if something else that we have planned afterward could really ever be more important — or do we consider it the greatest privilege and blessing of our existence to be able to spend time with God? There are many other questions that could be asked. The point, however, is to examine whether Jesus really is the “one thing necessary” in our life, whether he is our number-one priority, whether he is the pearl of great price, whether we really treat and love him as GOD.
10) If listening with loving attention to Jesus is truly the absolute priority in our life, then that seed of God’s word planted through our ears into our hearts will bear fruit naturally in our deeds (cf. Lk 8:5 ff). It will not fall sterile. Mary was not sitting at Jesus’ feet because she was lazy. She was not listening to him to be entertained by his parables or stories, but because he had the “words of everlasting life” (Jn 6:68). Those words were meant to be LIVED. Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice” (Lk 11:28), and Mary, as we see when she anointed Jesus, was one who acted on his word. She was for that reason also supremely wise and steadfast in faith, for the Lord said elsewhere, “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Mt 7:24-25). And the same Jesus who praised her is calling each of us to be as blessed and wise as she, building our whole lives on the rock, on Jesus, by hearing and obeying the foundation of his word. Then, with that foundation sure, we can work like Martha, but with the heart of Mary. We will not be “distracted” like Martha but focused on Jesus. We will not be “worried about many things,” but trust and rely in God as our sole treasure. Then, in addition to placing our heart and ears at the Lord’s feet, we will also be able to place so many deeds of loving service, the fruits that come whenever Jesus’ word is planted in the good soil of a faithful soul.
11) At today’s Mass, in this modern Bethany, we, too, like Mary, have listened at Jesus’ feet while he has fed us with his word. As he prepares to feed us even more profoundly with his flesh and blood, we ask him, through this nourishment, to help us base our lives on what he has reminded us today, that he is the One thing necessary, so that we might have Him, and He might have us, forever. Mary chose the better part and it wouldn’t be taken from her. Now WE CHOOSE.