Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 21)

Tony and Jill had been married for five years. They had two little children and were regularly busy with work and raising a family. Tony had been extra busy at work, spending a lot of time both in the office and working at home. Jill was starting to feel a distance growing between them. She texted Tony one day: “We need to talk when you get home.”

When he got home, the kids were in bed already. They sat down. Jill said: “Tony, I love you. I love all that you do for the family. I love being with you. I want to be with you. Our lives have become so busy that we don’t even get a chance to talk or just be together.” Tony replied: “Jill, thank you, I love you too and feel the same way but don’t know what to do. It feels like there is always something going on.”

They continued to talk and decided they would make it a priority to spend some time each week alone, away from work, the kids and friends. Years later they would comment on how spending the time together listening to each other deepened their love and strengthened their marriage and all the other relationships they were in with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors.

The familiar story from Sunday’s Gospel passage is that of Martha and Mary. Both represent different aspects of the life of discipleship. Martha represents the life of service, Mary the life of prayer. Both are doing good, both aspects are necessary.

Martha is busy with the responsibility of hospitality. She welcomes Jesus to her home and prepares a meal for him and the others present. She is showing the same care and concern for her guests that Abraham had for the three visitors at the terebinth of Mamre. The service is that of love.

When Abraham sees the three men walking by in the heat of the day, he goes to them and asks a favor. He does not ask for something from them for himself or his family. The favor he seeks is for them to allow him to help them. “Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves under the tree. Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way.”

Abraham is genuinely and sincerely concerned about the travelers. He wants to help them. His reward is in the act of service. (A further unexpected reward comes in the announcement that Sara, his wife, will have a son within a year’s time.) The same is true of Martha. This service is good and an act of love.

Mary is active also but in a different way. She is in the act of listening. This too is an act of love. Mary represents the life of prayer. Listening and “being with” the Lord is what happens in prayer. We place ourselves in his presence and we listen to him. We spend time with him. The “listening” takes effort. Just like in any relationship we cannot do all the talking, we spend time listening or paying attention to the other person. This is what Mary is doing. She listens to Jesus speak and takes his words into her heart.

Jesus speaks to Martha when she says: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Jesus’ reply is: “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.”

Both the “service” represented by Martha and the “listening” represented by Mary are good. Jesus’ response to Martha indicates that the “listening” is the better. He does not say that one excludes the other. As we see elsewhere in his teaching, service, helping others and hospitality are all essential to being a disciple. Yet at the core of discipleship is a relationship and the relationship has to be strengthened and developed through listening. Hence this is foundational. Service flows from and is rooted in this relationship of love.

Tony and Jill discovered in the early years of their marriage the importance of spending time together. The time of being alone with each other allowed them to “listen” to each other and to deepen their love. That love strengthened the other relationships in their lives and helped them to be better persons.

Jesus spends time with his friends Martha and Mary. He reminds us through the encounter remembered today that “being with” him and “listening” to him is fundamental to our lives of service.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.