16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Martha, Martha….”

When we hear those words in today’s gospel reading, how many of us can hear our own names?  “John, John [or your name here], you are anxious and worried about many things….”

At first glance, it almost seems unfair or ungracious of Jesus to address Martha as he does.  She was, after all, engaged in one of the most important social customs of their day:  providing hospitality to a visitor. 

Our first reading gives us a glimpse of how important hospitality was in the biblical world.  Three visitors—later revealed to be God and two angels—came to Abraham’s and Sarah’s camp. Abraham bent over backwards to accommodate them.  He showed reverence for them by bowing low to the ground.  He took care of their practical needs by giving them the best of his food and drink and by providing water to bathe their feet.  Finally, and most importantly, he was personally present to them throughout their visit.  He paid attention to them.

Mary was similarly personally present to Jesus in our gospel reading.  Indeed, as a woman she transgressed the cultural and religious norms of the time by sitting at the feet of Jesus just as any male disciple would do.  Her attention was focused on him.  Martha realized perhaps too late that, in the midst of her busy-ness, she had lost that opportunity.

The real problem in this story isn’t working vs. sitting down or ministry vs. contemplation but rather anxiety vs. peace of mind and heart, even in the midst of activity. 

Anxiety and its cousin, depression, are huge problems in our society.  An estimated 40 million adults in our country suffer from various forms of anxiety, the most common form of mental illness; and one in six Americans now take anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications.   The silver lining in those statistics is that, as more people realize that mental health is simply one element of our overall health, more and more are reaching out for help.  Medication is helpful to many, but it’s not the only or best help available or necessary. 

We can experience anxiety in action when we lose sight of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and for whom we’re doing it.  We can also experience anxiety in prayer, meditation, contemplation and study.  We become distracted and unable to benefit spiritually, intellectually, emotionally and physically.   Whether we are working and moving around like Martha or sitting still like Mary, we can easily lose our sense of the Lord’s presence. 

Jesus calls us, like Martha, to attention or, if you like, mindfulness.

St. Paul had many things to worry about:  the struggles of many young churches over issues like factionalism, leadership and doctrine; raising money for churches in need (e.g. Jerusalem); his own ministry and credibility, etc.  He experienced mental, physical and spiritual suffering so profound that he testified that he was filling out what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ.  In saying that, Paul was not denying the final and universal salvific effects of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  Instead, he believed that he was making the suffering of Jesus more tangible for the people he served. (It certainly was for him.) He also wanted to connect their suffering to Christ’s, and his with theirs.

Paul also had a deep sense of stewardship.  He realized that his ministry was not so much his as Christ’s.  He was doing what the Master had commissioned and empowered him to do.  It was a sign of his focus on Jesus and his trust in Jesus as the head of his mystical body, the Church

St. Martha and St. Paul both learned that the one thing required was focus on and faith in Jesus:  everything else followed.  Their lesson is ours to learn today. +