A Message to Martha
July 18, 2004
Today’s gospel is perhaps the most dangerous passage in all of the scriptures. I have been a priest now for over twenty-five years and I have had to speak on many touchy issues. But no gospel strikes greater fear into my heart than this one. Why? Well you know the story. Jesus goes to the home of the two sisters, Mary and Martha. Mary sits at his feet to listen to his words while Martha is responsible for all the tasks of hospitality. However, when Martha comes to complain and ask that Mary help her with the work, Jesus sides with Mary, saying that she has chosen the better part and it shall not be taken from her.
Why is this so dangerous? Because I know that there are Marthas here this morning. They are the workers of the world. They are not only women but men as well. They are the first people to say yes when you have a need. They are willing to roll up their sleeves and get things done. They take pride in their work. They do not complain. They ask for little in return. Often they do not even expect a thank you. BUT– if they ever did ask for a helping hand, if they ever humble themselves enough to say, “Would you assist me?” and someone were to dismiss that request as lightly as Jesus did to Martha in today’s gospel and instead point to some sweetie laying on the couch contemplating the mysteries of life and say, “She has chosen the better part,”—well you wouldn’t want to be there. It would get ugly.
So I know that you Marthas are out there. I know when you heard this gospel your jaw began to tense. When Jesus sided with Mary you said, “Huh! He’s sitting in a clean house, eating a hot meal. How does he think these things are going to happen if everybody chooses the better part?” I know that you Marthas have already written Jesus off – Son of God, or not: “That man doesn’t get it.” And I recognize that your eyes are now fixed on me. You are waiting to see whether I will agree with Jesus or not. If I do, twenty-five years of experience tells me, I’ll hear about it.
I hope you can recognize my dilemma. My job is to agree with Jesus. It is what I signed up for on ordination day. But, on this issue, I understand what the consequences will be if I do so. So here’s my plan. I have scheduled my vacation for this week. And I am going to give this homily and get out of town.
This is what I think Jesus is saying. “Martha, Martha, I deeply appreciate the work that you do, the committees you chair, the service you render, the meals that you cook, the hours you labor. I know the world would not function without your energy and skill. But I love you Martha, and so I need to ask this question. Do you know that there are things in your life more important than work? Do you know that as valuable as it is to give to others, you also need to take for yourself?
“Do you understand that along with all the time you use, there must also be time that you waste, time when you set aside all your responsibilities and have some fun? You need time to think about questions with no practical purpose, such as, why bees are attracted to flowers, or whether God is male or female, or when was the last time you laughed so hard it made you cry. You might think that such questions are trivial and a waste of time. But they are an opportunity to embrace the mystery of life.
“I do not want you to stop working, Martha, but neither do I want you to lose yourself. I love you, Martha. You need to know that I love you not for the things you do, but for the person you are. You are “the better part,” the part that must not be overlooked or forgotten. I want you to realize how valuable, how precious you are to me.”
Marthas, that is what I think that Jesus is saying. Not that you work is unimportant, but that it is not everything. Not that we do not deeply appreciate what you do, but we want you to realize how important you are. Therefore, you have the right to take time for fun, to take time to think and pray, to set aside time to waste. All of these “Mary things” are a part of life. Jesus wants to be sure that they are a part of yours.
That is what I think Jesus is saying. And now that I have agreed with him—I’m out of here!
Notes from the Vatican
July 22, 2007
Usually when a statement comes out from the Vatican, it makes the papers, people read and think about it, and then move on. This does not seem to be the case with the most recent statement from the Vatican, issued on July 10th of this year, concerning the church and its relationship with to other Christian denominations. You probably read in the paper or on the internet the headlines saying that the Catholic Church claimed to be the only true church and considered other Christian denominations to be defective. For the last ten days I have been dealing with questions from parishioners, from friends, from fellow priests, and from ministers of other Christian denominations concerning this document. So I think that it might be useful for us today to reflect upon what this document means.
Today’s second reading provides a useful context for that discussion because the author to the Colossians says that we are called not only to follow Christ but to stand before Christ with maturity. Maturity is what we need whenever we address an official statement of our Church, for we must approach it with respect, intelligence, and the sum total of our lived experience.
So let us do that this morning, and let us proceed in three steps: First, what does the document say. Second, what does it not say. And third, how might this discussion of the document affect our lives.
What does the document say? It says that fullness of the church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. Now this is not a new statement. It is direct quotation from the Second Vatican Council. The document calls us to appreciate some of the unique things which we have in the Catholic tradition: a world-wide church structure united with the Pope which mirrors the world-wide call to the gospel, a succession of leadership that can be traced back to the apostles, and the centrality of the Eucharist as the source and summit of our life of faith. I value these gifts, and I think you do as well. The document says that having these qualities gives to the Catholic tradition a fullness which other Christian denominations do not possess. Now we should remember that this document is written from the Catholic perspective. Other Christian denominations do not see themselves defective because they do not have the qualities that I just mentioned. That is fair. Their understanding of their own relationship to Christ differs from ours. But from a Catholic perspective possessing these qualities is essential to us as Catholics. We treasure them. That is the crux of what the document says.
What does the document not say? It does not say that other Christian denominations are not Christian or that somehow they are separated from Christ. It does not say that Catholics are better than non-Catholics. We know this is not true from our own experience. I think most of us could identify Christians of other denominations who live the Christian life more faithfully than we do. It does not say that the Catholic Church is perfect. In that long history, which we so treasure, we can identify a number of sinful disasters—the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition to mention only two. It does not say that the Catholic Church has nothing to learn from other Christian denominations. We have learned and continue to learn from one another. In the fifty years since the Second Vatican Council the growing appreciation of Scripture and a more active congregational singing in the Catholic Church are only two of the gifts which we have learned from other Christian traditions. There are some aspects of Church life which they have preserved more faithfully than we have. The document certainly does not say that people should be judged because they are not Catholic. The clear teaching of the Catholic Church is that each person is free to choose their own path to God according to their own conscience. Nor does it say that dialogue between Christians is unnecessary or un-important. We continue to believe as Catholics that the separation that exists between the Christian faiths is contrary to the will of Christ. Christ calls us to be one.
All of these things I have enumerated are not said in the document. It is important that we realized this, lest we imagine that the document is implying them. The document is rather making a narrow theological point that in our understanding as Catholics we possess certain qualities which give us a fuller claim to be the church of Christ. The fact that other Christians disagree with us on that stance should not be dismissed or ignored. Rather it points to the necessity of further dialogue between us.
So how should this document and what it says affect our lives? It challenges us to realize that not all Christians are the same. Sometimes you hear people say, “All faiths are the really the same anyway.” All faiths are not the same. We are certainly more similar to one another than dissimilar, but we are not all the same. Each tradition has its own history, its own practices, its own emphasis, its own theology. We need to know our own tradition just as other Christians need to know theirs. Once we know what we believe, it is important that we reach out to others in dialogue, and to reach out with humility and respect.
I am keenly aware that many people here have members of their family who are of a different Christian tradition. I am aware that people of a different Christian tradition might be visiting with us this morning or might come here regularly to participate in our worship. I want everyone to know that other Christians are welcome here at St. Noel. We are always eager to share with other Christians our understanding of Christ. And we are open to listen as they share with us their understanding of Christ. We must believe that across our divisions, we are called to listen to one another with humility and respect, so that step by step, we might move towards the unity to which Christ calls us. Christ loves us all. Christ works through us all. Therefore, I think it is important that we understand this recent statement from the Vatican as a call to appreciate our own tradition and then to reach out to others in an honest dialogue. It is only in this way that we can become the mature Christians which Christ calls us to be.
It Is Really Better to Give?
July 18, 2010
Giving and receiving is the interplay of life. If we are to live a full life, we must be able to give of ourselves, of our time, of our talents, of our resources, for the sake of others. But we must also be able to receive blessings from God and the gifts of love from others. A full life then includes both giving and receiving. That much is clear.
But if someone were to ask which is more important, giving or receiving, how would you answer? I think most of us would fall back on the old maxim It is better to give than to receive. But the surprising thing is that Jesus has a different perspective. This becomes clear in today’s gospel, when he comes to the house of Martha and her sister, Mary. The two women represent two different dynamics. Martha is the giver. She is involved with giving of her time and talent to make sure that Jesus’ stay is welcoming and warm. Mary on the other hand is the receiver. She sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his words. Now clearly we need both of these sisters in our lives. But when the point is pressed with Jesus, he makes it clear that Mary has made the better choice. He says, “Mary has chosen the better part and it shall not be taken from her.” To put this in other words, Jesus is saying It is better to receive than to give.
Now what does he mean by this? He is certainly not encouraging us to be selfish, to sit around and wait for other people to serve us. We must always remain givers, willing to offer our time, our ability, and our love. But Jesus is telling us that giving is not enough in itself. We must also receive. In fact, receiving is the deepest part of life. Giving is about doing and accomplishing. Receiving is about mystery and thankfulness. Lovers know this truth. When you are deeply in love with another person you do not describe that relationship as something you have done or accomplished. Love is something that happens to you. Even our words indicate this. We talk about “falling in love.” The action is opening ourselves, receiving what is offered. Now, of course, even in a loving relationship, both giving and receiving are necessary. But it is the receiving which is the deeper part, the one that leads to wonder and gratitude.
This is the reason that Jesus sides with Mary. He says that she has chosen the better part because receiving is more central. This is also the reason that we should be sure that we have space for receiving in our lives. You see, for most of us, our action of giving tends to drive out the receiving. We are so busy with our work, with our projects, with our goals that there is not that much time left over to receive, to let love in. Intimacy with our spouse is lost because there are so many things we have to do. Keeping in touch with friends is forgotten because it is easier to just surf the internet. Taking time to talk or to walk with our children seldom happens because we have to drive them to soccer, or sign them up for ballet, or get them to camp. We are surrounded with a world of wonderful beauty, but we do not know it. We do not take time to look or to listen or to pray. We fail to receive. And when our life becomes all about doing and giving, the deepest things in life become lost in the shuffle. Our life becomes more manic and shallow and we loose that sense of mystery and thankfulness.
So look at the week that is ahead of you and make sure that there are some spaces there for “Mary Time.” We need moments in which we can receive. Make time to have an honest talk with someone you love, or laugh with your children or grandchildren, or simply open yourself in an empty space and let the beauty in. Yes, I know, there is much work to be done and that it is important for you to give of yourself to your work and for your family. But it is also important to receive. And—if Jesus is to be trusted—receiving is the better part.
Worry and Listening
July 21, 2019
Luke 10: 38-42
The most important decision we have to make in understanding today’s Gospel is to imagine what tone Jesus uses when he addresses Martha. His words are “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.” Is Jesus speaking out of frustration and criticism because of the choices Martha has made? Or is his tone is one of concern and compassion because he knows Martha is not happy? I would suggest we adopt the latter option. Jesus is not criticizing Martha for her actions. In fact, what she is doing is good and necessary. She is providing comfort and hospitality to Jesus. Jesus addresses Martha because he sees that although she is doing the right thing, it is not bringing her joy. Instead her work is causing her worry and anxiety.
All of us have responsibilities like Martha, things we must do. We need to provide for our family. We must strive to be good parents. We have responsibilities at work. We need to make life decisions such as what will I do after high school or after college. All of these efforts require time and energy. They are necessary. But what the character of Martha asks us is this: Are our responsibilities lifting us, up or pulling us down? When we do the things that we must do, do they give us satisfaction, or are they depleting us?
If they are depleting us, then we might find ourselves in a condition that one author has called “sunset fatigue”. This is when at the end of the day, the people who need our love the most, the people to whom we are most committed end up getting the leftovers. Sunset fatigue is when we are simply too tired, too drained, or too occupied to love the people to whom we have made the deepest promises. Martha has sunset fatigue. She’s doing the right thing, but it is depleting her, making her anxious and worried. This is why Jesus addresses her and shows her a way out. He points to the activity of her sister Mary, who listens to the Lord as he speaks. If Martha is the sister who represents worry, Mary is the sister who represents listening. What Jesus is telling Martha and us is that if we wish to overcome fatigue, worry, and anxiety, the way to do this is by listening. We do not need to do less. We need to hear more. We do not ignore our responsibilities, but we choose to be present to the people who are most important in our lives.
At the end of a busy day, when our mind is filled with concern and anxiety, Jesus asks us to listen to someone who loves us: to ask our eight-year-old how was day camp; to speak to our teenager about a friend who’s been hospitalized; to ask our spouse what was the best part of the day. As we listen to the people who love us, we become grounded and our anxiety is reduced. We all know that we have a responsibility to worship God that is why we are here today. Coming here today is doing the right thing. But we can come here with our minds still full of worry and anxiety. We can sit here still thinking about what happened before we came to Mass or what we have to do when we leave Mass. Jesus asks us to come here and to listen: to listen to a fellow parishioner who greets us or shares a problem with us, to listen to the music that moves us, to listen to the Word of God as it addresses us. Because if we listen, we will hear the voice of Christ, and that will remind us to whom we belong. That will give us peace.
Jesus addresses Martha because he is concerned that she is worried and fatigued. Jesus uses the example of Martha to speak to us, to say that when we are filled with anxiety and depleted, it is important to listen to the people who love us and to hear the voice of God in our lives. This is why Jesus says that listening is the better part. Not that it is more important than working or doing. But because it is only through listening that the work we do will give us life.