One of the great topics of dispute in the Christian faith, from the time of St. Paul certainly through the time of Martin Luther and even up to our own day, is the question of faith versus works. The two sisters from our gospel today personify the interplay between faith and works, for Mary seems to represent faith while Martha seems to represent works.
Abraham, who is the father of our faith, certainly seems to be a man of action in the story we read from the book of Genesis today. He sees three men, he approaches them, he invites them to dinner, he runs home, he gets his wife busy cooking, he serves the meal, and he waits on them while they eat.
Today’s Psalm is one of those attributed to David, the king of Israel, and David was certainly a man of action. In this Psalm, the good and holy man is identified by his actions: one who does not slander with his tongue, one who does not lend out money at high interest rates, and one who does not accept a bribe.
So two of the great heroes of the Hebrew faith who come to us today in the Old Testament readings were men of action: they were busy proposing, implementing, and serving. And from all this activity we are to infer holiness and goodness and right relationship with the Lord. Martha seems to be cut from the very same cloth: she is an activator, she is serving to the point she’s even burdened with serving.
Yet Jesus tells her: Mary has chosen the better part. Mary, who sits there doing nothing at the feet of her Lord, listening to him speak.
Jesus tells Martha that there is need of only one thing while she is worried about many things. According to Church councils through the centuries, God is simple. His substance, nature, and very being is that of utter simplicity. He is pure spirit. He is eternal being. We, who are created by God, are composite beings, and we are prone to complexity. Where Martha is focused on the multitude of tasks involved in serving, Mary is focused on the one necessary thing: God in his eternal simplicity. We must always resist the temptation to define our relationship with God on our terms rather than engaging with Him on His terms. We must love Him, and we must love our neighbor. It’s that simple. Martha, in her focus on the work of service, is on the verge of losing sight of the necessary thing, the simplicity of God who is Love.
So how do faith and works go together? We see in the writings of the Apostles it is already a serious question. St. Paul speaks of the works of the law as opposed to righteousness, and St. James says faith without works is dead. St. Paul makes it clear we are justified by faith, and St. James reminds us our actions reflect our faith. Thus we have the traditional Catholic understanding of faith and works: the good works will flow from true faith, but you cannot have one without the other.
We should, therefore, incorporate both Mary and Martha in our lives as disciples of Christ. Yet Jesus said to Martha: Mary has chosen the better part.
Mary is able to be still in the presence of her Lord. Mary listens to her Lord. Mary is focused on the one needful thing: her Lord. This is the better part.
We need to cultivate our quiet, intimate, receptive relationship with our Lord. For many of us, this is a harder task than to get busy with the works of our faith. For some reason, many of us are more comfortable in activity than we are in stillness. We are more comfortable when there is background sound then when there is silence. The TV is always on at home and the radio is always on in the car.
But Jesus said to Martha: Mary has chosen the better part. So if we are not really comfortable with stillness or silence, then we should challenge ourselves to work on that.
This does not necessarily mean we should go sign up for a three-day silent retreat at the Ignatius House. But that is a great thing to do if you’ve never done it. All of us can find little slices of our day or our week in which we can cultivate the habits of stillness and silence in the presence of our Lord. Here at St. Catherine of Siena, we have a perpetual adoration chapel. It is a place of silence. Our Lord is there, and we are there, and nothing else is necessary. It would be fantastic to sign up for a particular hour and be a guardian, but even 15 minutes whenever you can would be a great first step for those of us who are not used to stillness in silence.
In our personal prayer life, we don’t have to talk all the time. Our Lord made us, and he knows what we want, and he knows what we need. Sometimes the best thing we can do to grow closer to Christ, is just to sit at his feet in stillness and silence, and let him love us. St. John Vianney was a priest in the French countryside who was famous for the many hours he spent hearing confessions. He told a story of seeing a peasant standing in the church looking silently at the crucifix on the altar. This happened frequently enough that the priest finally asked the farmer what he was doing. The reply was, “I look at him and he looks at me.” That busy farmer took time to choose the better part.
There is certainly a place for action in our prayer lives. The liturgy of the Mass is active prayer, with plenty of movement of our bodies and our voices. Yet, even in the mass, there are moments of stillness and silence. These are intentional. It’s not like father has lost his place and cannot remember the next thing he supposed to say. In the mass, our Lord is there and we are there. A moment of silence in the mass is just another of our Lord’s many gifts to us.
As we grow in our comfort with stillness and silence in the presence of our Lord, we may find that our works on his behalf are more pure. Good works can be fraudulent if they don’t come from a heart full of good faith. We cannot work our way into heaven. We can only accept the gift of his saving love. And stillness and silence in his presence bring us the peaceful confidence to extend our hand to our Lord in thanksgiving for the gift of his love.
This is the one necessary thing.