16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Homily 21 July 2019
“There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.”
There have been times when I made a choice and I knew deep within it was the only choice to be made. It was absolutely the right choice. If I could do it all over again I would make the same choice and do so with thanksgiving and gratitude. There have also been times when I made what I thought was the right choice but can now see there was a better choice to have been made. I would do things differently if I had the chance to choose again. I suspect most of us could say the same thing.
Too often we equate the choice we make, and its subsequent approval or rejection, with our goodness, our worthiness, our acceptableness, our faithfulness, our lovableness. That’s what most of history has done with Mary and Martha. Mary made the better choice, Jesus says, and we quickly conclude that we should be like Mary, not Martha. We are to sit and listen rather than be active and busy. Mary is equated with the contemplative life and Martha with the active life, and much of Christian history has seen the contemplative life as the more perfect life. That’s one reading of this text but is it the only reading, the definitive reading? Is Mary necessarily better, more holy, more loved, more acceptable to Jesus?.
Fr. Michael Marsh says, that he doesn’t think this text is really even about Mary and Martha but about us and the choices we make. That does not mean we are to copy cat Mary. He thinks that what Jesus is saying is that choices matter. We are always making choices. I wonder how many choices we make each day? Sometimes we choose unconsciously, sometimes quickly and easily, other times with great deliberation and struggle. Some choices are insignificant. They are forgotten the next day. Other choices have great meaning and significance and the consequences are long lasting. Our choices can shape who we are. They can establish in us patterns and habits of how we see and act, the words we speak, and the ways we relate to each other. Our choices can set a trajectory for our life. Our choices make a difference.
In this particular context Mary made the better choice but it was a choice for that time, that place, and those circumstances. Change the setting and Martha’s choice might have been the better part. In sermon 103 St. Augustine says, “Martha has to set sail in order that Mary can quietly remain in port.” In sermon 86 Meister Eckhart that elevates Martha’s role over that of Mary based on his belief that meditation can become an end in itself rather than a means and that detachment is the highest virtue in the spiritual life. He concludes that Martha had matured beyond the need for spiritual consolations. She is simply present to Christ in everything she does. One observation that has come out of our evening Q & A with Fr. Thomas is that even in the monastic way of life overt monastic trappings may present the greatest obstacle for professed religious who over-identify with them. The Cistercian way of life can be a help as well as a hindrance to one’s spiritual progress. Eckhart cautions we can be left with the method (the way) but miss God “who lies hidden in it.”
We can see that in Jesus’ own life. Sometimes Jesus went off by himself to be alone, silent, still, to pray, to sit and listen, to be present to his Father. At those times he was like Mary. Other times Jesus was active, on the move, in the midst of people, and busy teaching, healing, feeding 5,000. On those days he was more like Martha.
While we might distinguish between Mary and Martha there is a common theme, presence. Mary and Martha are two ways of being present. Both ways are necessary, faithful, and holy. There is not simply one choice that is to be made for ever and always. We are always to be discerning the one thing needed in this time, this place, these circumstances. What is the better part given our particular situation? How do we be present, show up, to the divine presence that is already and always before us? That’s the question. Some days Mary will be our guide and other days Martha will be our guide. Either way we must choose.
Some days that choice may mean sitting quietly and listening to the heartbeat of God within us, reading and praying scripture, watching a sunset, or praying for the world. Other days it may mean speaking words of hope and encouragement, offering actions of compassion and hospitality, seeking forgiveness and making amends, or walking the woods.
What is the one thing needed right now, in this moment? Not forever or what you think will fix all your problems and let you live happily ever after. Just for now. What is the one thing needed that will keep you awake, aware, open, receptive, and present to Christ? Choose that. That is the better part but hold your choice lightly because there will be another choice to be made after that, and another after that one. We choose our way into life, love, relationships, faith, and even salvation, and the choices matter.