The Most Important Thing Is...
In Sunday's gospel, we heard the story of Mary and Martha. Jesus says to Martha: "you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing." What is that one thing? It's Jesus. Jesus helps us to understand through this interaction with Martha and Mary that He should be the center of our lives.
What is the most important priority in your life right now? In Sunday's gospel reading, Jesus shatters in one sentence this cacophony of the frenetic and the fractured, and reveals to us the secret to our liberation: “You are worried and distracted by many things. Only one thing is necessary.” Jesus is that one thing.
Jesus is the pearl of great price, more valuable than everything else. Mary “got it”. Her Lord was the one thing necessary, so she directed all of her attention directly on Him.
Jesus gets first place alone. If only Jesus is necessary, then if we follow Jesus and fail to do everything else, then our life will still be successful; if however, and we do everything else except make Jesus the center of our live, then ultimately we will have wasted our lives. That’s what we must grasp, will and choose.
One of the most important things in human life is to learn how to set and keep proper priorities. Often the difference between a happy and unhappy life, between a rewarding and an unfulfilled one, centers on whether we’ve set the right priorities. Some years ago a 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. American men have long lamented that, because of all of the demands at work and the fulfillment of other duties, they have less and less time to do the things that are really fulfilling. Even many teenagers and kids today have to keep a detailed calendar because with homework, sports, and even play dates, their schedule has become overwhelming. When I was growing up, I spent most of my time after school and chores, playing outside, riding bikes, playing football in the yard with my brothers and friends. I notice that less and less our children have a chance to play in unstructured time. Moreover, phones, email, messaging, SnapChat and other social media have created a culture of the nanosecond, where we feel we must drop what we’re doing and answer right away. Life has become like the whack-o-mole game. So many of our technological advances, while offering great possibilities to improve our lives, have also often left us fragmented and torn apart by a list of to-dos that just seems to keep growing, enslaving us to so many tasks that there seems to be no time for the things that deep down we know are most important: God, my spiritual life, my family, children.
Jesus, who came to set the captives free (Lk 4:18), who is the Truth incarnate (Jn 14:6), who knows everything and who cannot lie, shatters in one sentence this cacophony of the frenetic and the fractured, and reveals to us the secret to our liberation: “You are worried and distracted by many things. Only one thing is necessary.”
Last week, Jesus helped us to prioritize among all our moral duties the first and most important thing of all: to love God with all our minds, hearts, souls and strengths and to love our neighbor in the way we ourselves wished to be loved. The crucial question to be answered is, “What is that one thing?” Before we turn to what Jesus says in the Gospel, each of us should ask, “What is the most important priority of my life right now?” What do I spend my time on, where do I spend my money?
What Mary Realized that Martha Didn’t
At the home in Bethany, our Blessed Lord not only sets us in the right direction, but indicates to us, through His interaction with Martha and Mary, the goal of His Way. 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. In doing all of this, she was following in the sacred footsteps of Abraham and Sarah, both of whom, in welcoming the three men, spared no effort. 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 Rublev, saw in these three persons addressed collectively as a singular “Lord” the Blessed Trinity: the 3 Divine Persons). And it was that same God who promised them Isaac.
When Martha, however, similarly spares no effort to welcome God-incarnate, and asks His help in getting her sister to do her fair share, Martha receives what seems to be a mild rebuke. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me”; “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.”
Jesus was not saying that Martha’s efforts were somehow evil or unappreciated. He said that he himself had come among us as one who serves (Lk 22:27); He said that the greatest among us would be the one who serves the rest (Mt 23:11). Jesus was clearly not correcting Martha for her loving service. He was saying to her, however, that none of those efforts was strictly-speaking essential, 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 as yet hadn’t.
Here’s what Mary recognized: Jesus had come to their home primarily not to be fed, but to feed. The welcome he sought most was their time, their friendship, their love, their open ears and receptive hearts. 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 anywhere near as much as that. 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 is the pearl of great price, more valuable than everything else. Mary “got it”. Her Lord was the one thing necessary, so she directed all of her attention directly on Him.
Choosing the Better Part
Jesus is teaching exactly the most important priority for life and invites Martha and us to choose the better part: identify that priority (Him) and then setting our minds and hearts on acting in accordance with that priority. In his classic and highly influential book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey, argued that the problem for most people is that at practical level they spend too much of their time doing unimportant things they think are urgent, when they should be spending more of their time doing more important, less urgent things, like praying, spending time with their families, reading and learning, getting involved in activities that can make a real difference in the lives of others and especially the young. The secret to a fulfilled life, Covey said, is to resolve to say yes to the most important things and to say no to the less important activities. It’s to choose the better part.
Three practical ways to “choose the better part”.
The first is our hospitality toward Jesus. Like the sisters of Bethany, each of us is called to welcome Christ into our homes, both our physical homes and the spiritual abode of our hearts and souls. Prayer; often saying no to something urgent but not as important. Go to pray, immediately something urgent to do comes to mind, moment to pray passes…
Second, we’re called to imitate Mary in choosing the better part and truly allowing Jesus to feed us as he desires to do. It’s not enough for us to know what our priority should be. We also have to choose it. It’s not enough just to know where the treasure is buried, we need to make the choice to sell off other things that own us so that we can buy the field. That means reorienting our life to make Jesus truly its center and priority. One of the most common problems facing many even faithful Catholics today, and preventing our spiritual growth, is that we put many things ahead of God, on Sunday, on Monday and throughout the week. A priest friend of mine calls this the “Jesus is an important part of my life” syndrome. We try to squeeze Jesus into our schedule if we still have room if we’re not exhausted after having completed all the other activities we believe we “have to” do. St. Paul speaks very plainly: “For me life IS Christ.” Jesus gets first place alone, and then centering all the rest we do around our relationship with him. If only “one thing is necessary,” then if we do that one thing and fail to do everything else, then our life will still be successful; if only one thing is necessary, however, and we do everything else except that one thing, then ultimately we will have wasted our lives. That’s what we must grasp, will and choose.
The last application is a shout out to Martha. Martha often gets a bad rap in comparison to her sister because many interpret what Jesus did as a spiritual smack down, somehow denigrating the loving service Martha was doing for Him in the kitchen. Jesus wasn’t at all minimizing the importance of what Martha was doing but was focusing on how she was doing it. The last thing Jesus would want would be for all of us merely to sit at his feet and allow everyone else to work to serve us. That’s certainly not the Christian way or the way Jesus adopted. Like Martha, we are called to work hard serving others, but we’re supposed to do it with the spirit of Mary. That’s what the sanctification of our work is all about, to have Martha’s hands and Mary’s contemplative heart, so that we won’t be distracted by many other things, but so focused on Jesus in work, at school and in family life that we’ll be getting fed by him in action so that we might feed others not just by our work but with the One working within us.
The Modern Bethany
At today’s Mass, in the modern Bethany of this Church, we, too, like Mary, have a chance to imitate Mary in welcoming Jesus into our life as he deserves and wishes to be welcomed. What really helps us to focus on Jesus during Mass is the altar crucifix. During the sacred liturgy, the worshiping community is not to look at itself (you looking at me and me looking at you) but all of us looking toward Jesus. The altar crucifix helped to direct the attention of the worshiping community to Jesus and what is happening at Mass - the sacrifice of Calvary. We are blessed that a parishioner has graciously donated a beautiful altar crucifix that I hope we can begin to use for our Masses.
We can all look at our Eucharistic Jesus present to us in His Body and Blood, that he would make us and our parish Eucharistic, as we sit, stand, and kneel to adore Him. Today we ask Him, through this nourishment, to give us the courage to reorder the priorities of our life. Jesus is the one thing necessary. Mary chose the better part. Now we beg Saints Martha and Mary to intercede for us before Jesus for the grace to make the same choice now that our fragmented and frenetic lives may find cohesion, unity and peace by making Jesus the one thing necessary in our lives in such a contagious way that we might help the whole world re-prioritize to its salvation.
Fr. Roger Landry (2016)