The one thing that's needed
(Readings: Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel reading for today's Mass Jesus visits two sisters, Martha and Mary, and his visit becomes an occasion for teaching a lesson about the importance of hearing and taking in the content of the gospel message before embarking on any practical Christian activity or witness. And at the same time Jesus also has a warning against irrelevant or pointless activities which distract us from genuine service of the gospel.
So for the times that we might have got things back to front in the same way that Martha did, and for any of the other ways that we might have offended God, we ask for his forgiveness and for the grace to change.
Those few short verses that we just listened to from the end of chapter ten of St. Luke's gospel describe a domestic scene that I think most of us can identify with from our own experience. Lots of things have changed since Jesus' day but there are some things which are still the same, and I'm sure there have been occasions when most of us have behaved the way Martha did when she found herself entertaining Jesus in her own home.
The thing that hasn't changed since those days is that if we're offering hospitality to someone important or prestigious in some way, or someone we look up to, we tend to make a special effort and we can easily start to get anxious about creating a good impression. Some people can do all that and stay perfectly calm, but lots of us are more like Martha and get wound up and distracted and flustered.
But the point of the contrast between Martha's attitude and the attitude of her sister Mary isn't just to show that it's better to be relaxed than flustered when you've got important guests. And I don't believe either that the point of the story is that peaceful meditation and prayer is superior to practical activity or some form of witness.
Immediately before this incident, after all, Jesus had been teaching that that the way that leads to life with God both now and in the future is to act in the same way as the Good Samaritan in the parable: to react with practical compassion and care towards human suffering and need. Jesus himself carried out a busy active ministry of preaching and healing. He didn't live like a monk, and he didn't appeal to his followers to live like monks either. So the idea isn't just to say that contemplation is superior to practical Christian activity.
The point of the story, and the real contrast between Mary and Martha, I would say, is the contrast between first of all listening to the Word of God - being attentive to the message of the gospel - and rushing into a sort of misplaced busyness that actually prevents us from being sensitive to God's presence and from hearing what God has to say to us.
It's in that way that Mary's attitude is superior to Martha's. Mary responds in the right way to the presence of Christ: she sits down to listen to him. The lesson is that first of all, before we go about the practical demands of the gospel we have to make sure that we've heard the word of God and that Jesus' teaching has sunk in.
In fact, unless we listen to the gospel message first, and understand it properly, we'll be in danger of getting caught up in a lot of futile and pointless activities, like Martha - activities which we think are serving God, but aren't really serving him in any effective way at all.
Another way of putting it, perhaps, is to say that in Christian spiritual life, our personal relationship with Christ and our openness to his message, has to come first, before anything else. Practical duties like going to Mass or fasting before Communion, for example - not to mention getting involved in all sorts of church activities - are only worthwhile if they're preceded by a real and living friendship with Christ.
If we first of all put time aside to pray, an if we make an effort to read the gospels so that we get to know Christ better, and build up a better picture of him, then our relationship with Christ gradually becomes more rooted. As time goes on he shapes our whole character and influences all our motives and convictions so that we come to resemble Christ himself.
Whereas if we hardly ever pray and hardly ever spend any time in deepening our knowledge of Christ then our faith will inevitably remain at a fairly weak and superficial level.
The danger for Christians today, in the noisy, rushed, pressured atmosphere of modern society, is that individual believers and communities of believers can easily get wrapped up in all the secondary and unimportant aspects of religion and lose sight of the heart of it all - 'the one thing that's needed' as Christ says.
It's possible for an individual Christian to be carrying out all kinds of religious duties, and never have been genuinely touched by Christ. A community can get distracted by all kinds of social activities and worthy causes, or get wrapped up in administration, and lose sight of its distinctive Christian outlook. And of course at a higher level in the Church, bureaucracy can start to take over and become an end in itself. My suspicion is that in many instances in the modern Church, bustling activity and "planning" is a rationalisation of a lack of faith, a way of concealing the absence of a real relationship with God.
So with that sort of thing in mind, these few verses of Saint Luke's gave me a good idea for our church leaders and bishops. What I believe our modern bishops need desperately at the moment is a kind of Rehabilitation Centre, along the lines of a clinic for drug addicts, and it would be a centre to treat church leaders who've become addicted to programmes of church management and restructuring and pastoral development.
They would have to live at the Clinic for six or ten weeks, and during that time they would be completely prohibited from forming committees, or organising meetings, or even from writing anything on a flip-chart with coloured pens or bursting into some "powerpoint presentation". They wouldn't be allowed to contact their secretaries with a pager or a mobile phone, they'd have to give up their e-mail address on entry into the clinic, and they'd receive intensive therapy to make sure they never used expressions like 'feedback session' or 'steering group' ever again.
They only things they'd be allowed to do is say their prayers, celebrate Mass, and read the gospels. It would be painful, but sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind and they'd thank me for it later. And it would have to be called the Martha Institute, after Martha in the gospel, dedicated to eradicating all forms of pointless fuss and busyness in the life of the Church.
So those are my reflections on this incident in Luke's gospel. It's about putting first things first in our spiritual lives, not only as individual believers, but as the Church community as well, making sure we hear the Word of God as the first stage in genuinely serving Christ, and avoiding the temptation to put our energies into activities that don't actually move us in that direction at all.