17 July 2010
The One Thing Necessary
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time - C
Readings: Gn 18:1-10a; Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 5; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42
1. Are you anxious about many things?
This, I propose, is the main question for reflection this Sunday. It comes from Jesus’ reply to Martha in the Gospel story: "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." (Lk 10,41-42)
One common interpretation of this story is to turn it into an allegory, with Mary representing the contemplative life and Martha, the active life. The two lifestyles are acknowledged as two ways by which we can reach Christian perfection. The common conclusion is that the contemplative is seen as the better way.
Many people throughout history could relate to the allegory, but it is not the main message. The main message is introduced by the question: "Are you anxious about many things?"
Right now, what are the things that occupy your mind? Is it how to make ends meet? Or a deadline to catch? If you are a parent sending your children to school, is it about the next payment of tuition fees? If you are in college, is it about the coming exams? Is it about a friend in trouble or a personal goal you are trying to reach?
Many of the things that fill our minds and hearts are valid and important. We are generally good people. We are concerned about the people close to us, and given the chance to be of some service to them, we would take the opportunity to help. Sometimes our concerns even expand to include wider concerns such as society’s ills, educating the youth, healthcare delivery, nation-building, or protecting the environment. We are anxious about many things. That is why Martha’s predicament connects with most, if not all, of us.
2. Working for God or Doing God’s Work?
One of the great spiritual directors I had privilege of knowing persoonally was the late Fr. Thomas Green, SJ. On times like these, I particularly remember him and his sage advice. In his book Darkness in the Marketplace, he writes: “The Martha of the Gospels, it seems, was great-souled enough to learn the lesson and to remain with the Lord even as he journeyed to Calvary. But what a strange new world she must have entered that day in Bethany. Did she continue with the cooking? Or did she too drop everything and sit at the Lord’s feet with Mary? Or are those really the wrong – the unimportant questions to ask? Perhaps, it is not so important what she did as why she did it.”
Fr. Tom proposes that we distinguish between: “working for God” versus “doing God’s work”. Working for God means choosing “what we want to give God, what we want Him to like”. Doing God’s work means “asking Him what He would like and do as he wishes”.
As we go about our concerns, are we “working for God” or “doing God’s work”? Do we pause even for a while to ask: "What would Jesus want me to do?"
3. The One Thing Necessary
Ultimately, the one big message of this Gospel story is the call to discernment in order to discover the unum necessarium – the one thing necessary: Jesus Christ.
Pope Benedict XVI has this meditation in his encyclical Spes Salvi: “Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were 'without hope and without God in the world' (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were 'without God' and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future.”
If we rely on our strengths and wits alone to hurdle our anxieties in life, we will find ourselves situated in the same dark world, facing a dark future. Jesus is our anchor, our strength, our compass, our guide.
Christianity is more than just about doing good or getting along well with others, it is foremost about knowing Christ and following His will. On more than one occasion, Pope Benedict said: “Christianity is not a philosophy or a moral norm; we are Christians only if we encounter Jesus".
St. Paul teaches in 1 Cor 1,23-25: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
The same message is especially directed to those who feel disappointed and downtrodden at the outcome of their life choices, to those who feel frustrated and angered by circumstances beyond their control. The equivalent of Jesus’ gentle rebuke to Martha may not be so gentle in real life. Some adversities are meant, by people with bad intentions or the devil himself, to maliciously frustrate us. Some adversities are there in order to help us make better choices.
Before we fill our hearts and minds with anxieties, let us turn our attention first to the one thing necessary: to encounter Christ and then to know and follow His will for us.
Mt 6,33 assures us: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you.”