16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) - “the one thing necessary"
There was a time in my life, like Martha, when I was anxious and worried about many things. I did well in school and in my professional work, but most of the time, what I did was experienced as a burden or a chore - something very draining. I worked hard but very few things were “easy”. I was working, in a sense, to build myself up, to work to be “successful”, however that was defined by society, but the worry and anxiety had its roots in the thought that my success and worth depended on me and my achievements. Every test or project or task became a source of worry and anxiety because a failure or a less than perfect performance could potentially jeopardize the whole project - a “successful future”. I worked hard and tried to be good and do good things, not because I enjoyed them, but because it “was the right thing to do” and I wanted to look good in the eyes of others. I’m sure there was touch of resentment in my heart, a bitterness that I had to work so hard. Life was unfair in that sense. I most likely treated my faith in the same way. I went to Mass on Sundays without exception when I was in college and as a young single professional, when no one was making me go. I had grown up always going to Mass with my family. It was part of life, but if I look back honestly on my motivations at the time, going to Mass had probably more to do with keeping up my reputation as a “good Catholic boy” and the possibility of meeting a “good Catholic girl” than about a relationship with Jesus. As a young man, I had known about Jesus and I appreciated the beauty and the truth of Catholic tradition and teaching, but I had never had an encounter with Jesus. During a period of particular anxiety and uncertainty and frustration, Jesus penetrated my heart with the announcement that He was the answer to what I was looking for - what my heart was seeking. He was the “one thing necessary”. I only understood the void in my heart when I experienced a surprising fullness in the encounter with Christ. At that moment, all the things I was so worried and anxious about didn’t seem so important anymore. But what was surprising even more is that all the things I had to do did not carry the burden they did before. My experience changed from that of Martha to that of Abraham as we hear in the first reading. Abraham recognizes that the Lord has come to visit him, and he is eager to serve him. He is serving, not out of the mere custom or obligation of cultural hospitality to the traveling stranger, but out of an eagerness to serve the Lord. He has recognized that the Lord has come close to him and has chosen him. The clue that Abraham has recognized the Lord and is responding with his heart is that three men appear, but he addresses them as one, “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant.” This is a recognition of the heart, not just the mind. Abraham moves with haste - and generates a lot of activity, drawing his wife Sarah into the mission. He offers the Lord the best he has. He waited on them. A “waiter” is another name for a “servant”, but to “wait” on someone is synonymous with hoping for someone. This surprise visit has awakened Abraham’s hope. Faith that God is with him fills him with hope and the energy to serve. What is hope? It is the certainty that there is a promising future for me because of what (or who) has entered my present. What does the visitor say to Abraham? He makes him a promise: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.” The promise is beyond expectation. It is the promise of new life. Abraham was already an old man at this time - ninety-nine years old, and Sarah was 90. The Lord is not put off by their condition or even their doubt. He comes to them to fulfill their desire. We see a similar response of hospitality filled with eagerness and joy when Jesus chooses Matthew the tax collector and when Jesus stops at the foot of the tree Zacchaeus has climbed, waiting for Jesus to pass by. Matthew threw a great banquet for Jesus. Zacchaeus “came down quickly and received him with joy.” The two disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus with their eyes, but hearing him talk, their hearts were burning within them, and they invited Jesus to stay with them. They didn’t want him to pass by. They host him, and then their eyes are opened. When we recognize that the Lord is with us, we serve with joy and eagerness, because we have found the “one thing necessary.”
The beautiful thing is that the conversion of Martha began when she complained to the Lord - when she brought the unease of her heart to the Lord. It is OK to complain to the Lord as long as we listen to his response and let his words penetrate our heart. All of life changes, our relationship to everything changes - even to all those things we rightly complained about - when we realize that Jesus is the one thing necessary. Jesus’ words may sting and may open up a wound, like a doctor lancing a boil, but it is only to heal us, so that we can recognize Him, welcome Him with our whole heart, and serve him with joy.