Saturday, July 21, 2007

Attentive to God and Neighbor

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Holy Cross Parish
21-22 July 2007, Hutchinson, KS

“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.”

All those of you who are fans of the monthly prayer book MAGNIFICAT may have noticed that the cover picture for July, a painting from Johann Friedrich Overbeck, entitled "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary", not only captures the scene of our Gospel today, of Jesus admonishing Martha and taking Mary’s part, but through the window in the painting we can see last week’s Gospel of the parable of the Good Samaritan! That’s a wonderful sort of art as far as I am concerned. We should never underestimate the value of good Christian art not only to help lift our minds and hearts to God in prayer because of its beauty, but to inspire and teach us as well.
Just as we see it in Overbeck’s painting, so it is in fact: the teachings of these two Sundays are different but complementary. Being a neighbor to those in need like the Good Samaritan was for the man left for dead by robbers on the road to Jericho is a crucial part of our Christian calling. No less important is genuine and generous hospitality, true hospitality as illustrated in the First Reading and Gospel for today, that is, attentiveness to the guest.
What was Martha’s mistake that won her a little reproof from Jesus? Abraham too in the First Reading from the Book of Genesis is rushing around. It’d be hard to fault Martha on that account, but Abraham, different than she, really is attentive to the three passersby: he welcomes them, he feeds them, and most importantly, he has time to talk with them. Martha has an idea of how this visit from Jesus and His companions should come off and is always looking over her shoulder at her sister wishing for her help in the kitchen. But it is not Martha; it is Mary who understands that a guest in their house is there to be with and to be cherished, first and foremost. Preparing and serving the lunch and deciding which dishes or napkins come out with that lunch may have a certain importance, but Mary has chosen the better part, much to the pleasure and approval of her Sacred Guest.
Abraham did not go to all the fuss he did because he guessed the true identity of the three men. No, he offered the hospitality common to his day and because he kept the men company as they ate and rested in the shade Abraham was also rewarded with an encounter with God and good news of the heir, the baby boy by his wife Sarah, that the couple had all but given up hoping for.
Visiting with my cousins up in Sioux Falls this summer the topic of “progressive dinners” came up and there was a laugh and a comment about not only how rarely people entertain today, but how the quality of potluck suppers has fallen as people resort to delis for their contribution, as no one seems to have time for cooking any more. The progressive dinner thing was definitely out as that would mean upsetting not one but five households for an evening. Abraham’s and Martha’s concerns might in a sense belong to another culture and other times, but attentiveness to the other, to the guest, never goes out of style and carries with it the same reward, as it did for Abraham (receiving confirmation of a covenant promise to him, which he had all but despaired of seeing fulfilled) and as it did for Mary in her home in Bethany seated at Jesus’ feet and taking in His every word.
A retired priest friend of mine up north told me about the small town or rural weekly newspapers he enjoys so very much yet today, not only because of the obituaries, but also for the news items about someone’s son and his family who were home to the farm for a visit and the like. I didn’t realize that such papers still existed, papers that value what’s important to Mom and Dad, so to speak. I don’t think Father knows all these people, but he sees the small town papers as placing the accent on what’s really important. They come from that more personable world of once upon a time, which had its etiquette and its propriety, it was often quite formal, but because of this deliberate, and though by our standards slow-paced lifestyle, a world marked by social interaction. It was a valuable world of relationships, more valuable I’d say than what we glean from a whole Sunday afternoon of TV or video games or phoning and chatting on the internet.
Did Abraham expect a visit from God personally by his tent under the terebinth of Mamre? Was Martha any less aware of the importance of Jesus than her sister Mary? Maybe neither question is to the point and doesn’t or can’t lead us where we want to or ought to go. Sunday afternoon visits to and from relatives were not exactly what you’d call transcendental experiences and nothing would be gained by bringing them back, but much is lost in the distracted isolation which is so common to our society. Distracted isolation steals time from immediate and extended family; distracted isolation leaves little room in our lives for God and His surprise visits.
God entered the lives of Abraham and Sarah, of Martha, Mary and Lazarus through attentive social exchange. I have no doubt that the reason Perpetual Adoration is so popular today is because it’s one of the few face to face encounters left in our lives; it’s a quiet break from all the pushing, shoving, elbowing and digital connectedness which keeps us at arm’s length from everyone, including ourselves.
“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.”
Jesus is speaking to lots of us here today. What are we to do? Take the reprimand and react! Don’t waste another moment! Choose the better part as Mary of Bethany did!
People may not be able to manage the time needed for you to slaughter and barbeque a fattened steer, bake bread and set out curds and milk, as Abraham did for strangers, but then as Mary knew and Martha learned, that really wasn’t the point. The win or gain comes in treasuring the other and opening up to him or her.
Quality living begins at home as we take time for our spouse, for our children, for our parents, and for the extended family and neighborhood. How much time is wasted on Google Searches and the like, which could be better “wasted” in listening to someone or just being together and thereby affirming the other’s worth, even without words.
It’s not a question of choosing a different, alternative or otherwise radical lifestyle, it has nothing to do particularly with ecology or of moving to an acreage and raising goats and chickens, but represents a choice in favor of real society and is indeed a premise for possible encounters with God in our lives, which may be no less striking or dramatic for us than they were for Abraham and Sarah or for the family in Bethany.
Let thoughtful interpersonal relations open another door to prayer and adoration of the One God living and true for each and every one of us! The two great commandments of love of God and love of neighbor require not only sacrifices of us but attentiveness to the other, human or divine, which carries with itself its own reward.

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