July 19, 2019

Christ the Cornerstone

Place your trust in God and choose the better part

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord said to her in reply, ‘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: 38-42).

The Gospel for this weekend, the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, tells the familiar story of two sisters who welcome Jesus into their home. Martha is hardworking but anxious. Mary is more relaxed; she lets her sister do the serving work while she enjoys their guest’s company. When Martha complains and asks Jesus to tell her sister to help her, he admonishes her for being “anxious and worried about many things” (Lk 10:41). He also defends Mary saying that she “has chosen the better part” (Lk 10:42).

This Gospel story speaks directly to our contemporary experience. Busyness distracts us from the things that really matter, and work, as necessary and important as it is, too often gets in the way of our relationships with the people we are called to pay attention to, to love and to serve.

Mary chose the better part because she recognized Jesus’ presence as a gift, a rare opportunity that she could not fail to take advantage of. Martha, on the other hand, allowed her work—and her worries—to prevent her from savoring the moment.

Many spiritual writers have used this Gospel to illustrate the importance of finding balance in the active and contemplative dimensions of Christian life. As Jesus himself demonstrated, it’s important to periodically withdraw from our day-to-day activities to rest, pray and regain our sense of wonder and gratitude for God’s goodness to us.

What many today call “work/life balance” is critical to our mental, physical and spiritual health. Excessive worry brought about by an obsessive dedication to our work (whatever that happens to be) is counterproductive. It’s bad for the worker, and it ends up being detrimental to the quality of his or her work.

Fifty years ago, the German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote a series of essays on the subject of leisure.

In “Leisure: the Basis of Culture,” Pieper argues that authentic religion can be born only in the kind of leisure that allows time for the contemplation of the nature of God. He calls this kind of contemplative activity “the basis of culture” because work alone cannot inspire the kind of creative activities (such as art, music, literature, or architecture) that are essential to civilization.

“Unless we regain the art of silence and insight, the ability for nonactivity,” Pieper writes, “and unless we substitute true leisure for our hectic amusements, we will destroy our culture and ourselves.”

Mary chose the better part because she was not consumed by work. She placed her trust in God and allowed herself to experience fully the encounter with Jesus made possible, at least in part, by her sister’s hard work.

This is an example of “the Catholic both and,” the refusal to separate things that ought to be united. The well-known Benedictine motto, ora et labora (prayer and work) reminds us that both are necessary for a balanced life. Human life is enriched by both contemplation and action, leisure and activity. Finding the right balance is the key to living without undue worry or anxiety.

As Jesus tells us in the Gospel of St. Matthew:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?” (Mt 6:25-30).

The one necessary thing for all of us is to trust in the providence of God so that we can live balanced lives unburdened by the things that distract us from the joyful presence of those we love. †

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