16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – July 17, 2022
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15:2-5; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42
When Stories Are Too Familiar
I spoke last week about the incredibly famous parable of the Good Samaritan; a story that seemingly needs no introduction or explanation. Because we get it: we’re supposed to be a “good samaritan” in the world. But the problem, the question, was: “Well, then what’s the difference between an atheist humanitarian and a Christian being a ‘good samaritan’?” In other words, did Jesus just want everyone to be a “good person,” to be “nice” to each other—and that’s it? Being an atheist is fine, just be a good person? No. Of course not.
That’s why we talked about that distinction between Augustine and the heretic Pelagius—remember that fun exercise I give to the Confirmation kids? Like Augustine said, the problem, the “horrendous, hidden poison of [this] error [of thinking it’s just about being a good person]”—the problem, Augustine says, is, “you pretend to make Christ’s grace consist in his example [to us, his teachings and example], [when really it is about] the gift of his person [to us]” (Augustine, Contra Pelagius).
In other words, what it boils down to is that it’s not about “being good”—being a good person, trying to follow Jesus’ example—it’s not about “being good” but about “being with the Good.” It’s about the fact that the something that we’re looking for in our life…that something has given himself to us, is available to us. We can have that something that so often seems to allude us. Again, it’s the dumb analogy I give of the middle school boy who doesn’t want to go to school…until there is a cute girl at school that likes him, a “good” at school which transforms his life. In the monotony of the boring, ordinary days of school, the appearance of “the good” in his life changes everything, transforms life itself! Yes: this is going to involve doing the good, but the primary thing, the important thing is the presence of “the good.”
Ok. With that being said, with our minds refreshed with what is going on in this part of Luke’s Gospel, I want to share an experience I had this week which I think really helps us to understand what’s going on in the Gospel today, and reinforces what we were talking about last week.
“In the extreme cases, it’s easy…
I was talking with one of my mentors this week about life and the parish and being a priest and on and on. And we were discussing how difficult it is to lead and guide a parish. Like, where do you even start? There is so much that I could do, so much that I need to do and need to attend to day after day after day…and so where does one begin? And he asked me—he had me take a breath, take a few moments in silence, and asked me to respond to a simple question: “What is the one thing you need to laser focus in on at St. Paul? There are so many possibilities and so many exciting things going on, so much new life—and there are so many things you could do. But what is the one thing you need to focus on in order for everything else to flourish?”
He gave some examples. A doctor has a lot responsibilities, a lot of patients to check on, paperwork to do, prescriptions and treatments to order; and there are so many things going on in the hospital that he could be involved with; and then there’s his family and his community. And on top of that, in the hospital there are many other doctors and nurses and staff who all have the same number of responsibilities and concerns. But, when the doors burst open, and the paramedic wheels in a person with life-threatening injuries—everything else is dropped, and the doctor is immediately laser focused on that person, leading the trauma team in caring for that one person.
Or you think of a firefighter. Same thing. Lots of responsibilities, lots of things going on at work, in his life, in his family. But when the alarm sounds and the call comes in, there is a laser focus on this one thing. Or think of being a student and a deadline is coming up, or in your job with these situations, or in your family when a big event or party is coming up: there is a laser focus on one thing. Every one of you could tell me stories.
But in our day and age, these “extreme cases” seem to be our normal days. We are constantly bouncing from one thing to the next. There are so many things that demand our time and attention. Bouncing from work to kids’ or grandkids’ activities, constantly addressing the next pressing concern in our life, the next crisis. I don’t envy parents these days: it seems to be an unending race from one thing to the next.
…but in the ordinary, daily grind, not so much.”
In an ER, at a fire station…this is easy. In the extreme cases, in things that are super pressing and need to be addressed immediately, it’s easy to determine our laser focus. But: what is most important for tomorrow, or for the next week, for the next month, the next year, the next ten years? This is the challenge. The question is: what is most necessary for your life? When you take a step back from the “fires” you need to put out… what is most necessary for your life?
An author I greatly admire, Annie Dillard, wrote something that really opened my eyes. She wrote, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
We can get so caught-up and smothered by the daily needs, the constant barrage of “stuff” that we need to focus on, that we need to do for our kids, our family, our job—we can get so entrenched in this, fill our days with this, that we forget that this becomes what we’re doing with our lives. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
Here’s my big point for the day. In her anxious concern about many things, Martha is corrected by Jesus, Jesus calls her attention to a glaring problem in her life, “There is need of only one thing. Only one thing is necessary.” There is need of only one thing. Only one thing is necessary. And here’s the kicker for each of us: by the way we live, by the way we live each day, we claim to know what that one need, that one necessary thing is. I don’t need you to tell me what you believe is most necessary, the one thing your life truly needs. Your life already tells me what you believe is most necessary, just by the way you are.
One Thing Necessary
In this incredibly famous scene of Martha and Mary, Jesus does just that with Martha. He looks at her life, and reveals her heart to her. We can easily mischaracterize what Jesus says to Martha as being, “Stop working so hard and learn to enjoy life more, enjoy the present moment more.” We can think Jesus means, “Martha, stop with the anxiety and worry. Life’s too short for that!” But no, Martha is already aware of her temperament. “What Jesus reveals to her is her heart, he exposed her heart’s deep, essential, total need—and revealed to her that she was fooling this deep, essential, total need, not taking care of it. Or better, she was clogging it up with things, worries, activities, judgements, fears, irritations, preconceptions and dislikes, just like we do!” (Leopori, Christ, the Life of Life).
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. There is one thing necessary.”
“This is the word that Jesus wanted to take root in her heart so that she might meditate on it and assimilate it, so that it could do her good, do good in her life, heal it, save it, unify it from its fragmentation.” This is the word Jesus wants to take root in each one of our hearts. Because “the meaning of this message is not a bit of psychological or spiritual [advice], or an invitation to commit [ourselves] to bringing order into [our] life, starting by getting [our] bad character under control. …The meaning of this message is that only Jesus responds to the fundamental desire of the heart and of life.”
One Helpful Practice: Silence
In our frantic daily life, in the frantic, distracted, chaotic ways we live our lives—how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. And when that’s the case, we miss the one thing necessary, the one thing needed. By our daily life, we claim to already know what is needed, that by living this way or that we are experiencing what is needed. When really, often, we are only muddying, confusing, losing touch with the profound and true desire of the heart. Remember last week: we get caught up in doing good, doing things that are good and important…and we completely lose sight of the Good. We lost sight of how all of this isn’t about being a good person who follows Jesus’ teaching and example, but first and foremost about the gift of himself to us. [As a side note, this is why Sundays, and specifically Sundays as a day of rest are so important. This is why commitment to Mass every Sunday is so important. I’ve told you before: growing up, my family scheduled our entire week around Mass on Sunday. We didn’t try to fit Mass in during the week. Sunday Mass was the “one event necessary” each week.]
So, we need to engage the silence…listen…listen with the “ears of the heart”…listen in the uncomfortable aftermath of Jesus looking at us, at our life, telling us, “Michael, Michael…there is need of only one thing, only one thing is necessary”…in the silence that follows that statement, the silence where all of our self-justifications and retorts for why we are living such frantic distracted and chaotic lives start racing through our mind… In this silence, listen to Jesus’ words over and over and over: “There is need of only one thing. There is one thing necessary.”
Let these words expose your heart. Let them expose your heart’s deep, essential, total need. Let these words expose how you have clogged up your heart with things, worries, activities, judgements, fears, irritations, preconceptions. And let Him respond. Our need, our essential need—our heart, our life needs only Him, it lacks only Him. It lacks Him. Let’s allow ourselves to be called by name, with our name repeated twice. Let’s wrestle with that in the silence. And, when we recognize that need, recognize that our hearts’ one true need is Christ and Christ alone, approach this altar in the recognition that He gives himself to us. He freely and graciously gives us the one thing necessary: Him, His presence.