17 July 2016

Take the Better Part

NB. This one is short for a Sunday homily b/c I'm not sure I can stand in the pulpit for the usual length of time!

16th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

How do we go about revealing to the world the mystery of God's mercy? We have in the sisters, Martha and Mary, two models of how we might proceed. When Jesus visits the sisters, Martha begins to fuss about, trying her best to prepare a suitably hospitable meal for their guest. Frustrated that Mary is ignoring her domestic duties in order to dote on Jesus, Martha complains to Jesus and asks him to admonish Mary for her apparent laziness. Instead of scolding Mary for her inattention to duty, Jesus turns Martha's complaint back on her, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” We should notice here that Jesus doesn't chastise Martha for griping nor does he seem ungrateful for her work on his behalf. Rather than soothe Martha's hurt feelings by telling Mary to get to work, rather than tempering Martha's anger with a lecture on patience, Jesus goes straight to the root of her fussiness. Martha is anxious; she is worried. Faced with the presence of Christ in her home, Martha chooses to get busy; she deflects her anxiety by “doing stuff,” hoping, perhaps, that by staying busy she will burn off the fretting worry. Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus' feet and listens to his instruction. She too might be anxious. She might be just as wound up and nervous as her sister in the presence of Christ, but she chooses “the better part,” attending to Jesus as he teaches her the mysteries of his Father's revelation.

Why does Jesus consider Mary's rapt attention to be better than Martha's distracted busyness? Let's ask this question another way. Who is most likely to learn: a student who sits in class texting on her cell phone, checking Facebook, or doodling; or the student who attentively listens to the teacher – no distractions, nothing to cloud her mind or burden her heart? If you have ever tried to teach a child a difficult math problem, or convey a set of relatively boring facts, then you know the answer to this question! Mary has the better part because she is more likely to learn, more likely to “get it,” more likely to become the better teacher and preacher of the mysteries herself. Martha will get quite a lot done, but will she be open to seeing and hearing the mystery that Jesus has to reveal? Jesus tells Martha, “There is need of only one thing.” There is only one needful thing, only one thing we need: to listen to the Word, the Word made flesh in Christ Jesus.

When you take up Christ's commission to preach the mystery of salvation to the world, do you first listen to the Word; or do you get busy “doing stuff” that looks Christian, sounds Christian? Do you really hear what Christ has to say about God's mercy, His love? Do you attend to the Body of Christ in action during the celebration of his sacraments? Do you watch for Christ to reveal himself in those you love, in those you despise, those you would rather ignore or disparage? Can you set aside the work of doing Christian things and just be a follower of Christ, just long enough to be filled with the Spirit necessary to teach with all wisdom? It's vital that we understand that Martha isn't wrong for doing stuff. Her flaw rests solely in her anxiety and her worry while she's doing stuff. Being anxious and worried about many things while doing God's work is a sure sign that we are failing to grasp the central mystery of our commission to preach the Good News: it is Christ who preaches through us, not only with us, along side us, but through us. If we have truly seen and heard the mystery of our salvation through God's infinite mercy, then there is nothing to fear, nothing to be anxious about, nothing that can or will defeat the Word we are vowed to spread. Why? Because everything we do and say reveals Christ to the world. If the Church is the sacrament of God's presence in the world, and we are members of the Body of Christ, the Church, then we too are sacraments of God's presence. Individually imperfect, together we are made more perfect on the way to our perfection in Christ.

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