I don’t know about you, but I was really excited to see the first images of the universe that the James Webb Telescope – the world’s largest space telescope – provided us last week. Those photographs of the Carina nebula, where stars are born and Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies demonstrate how this new telescope will help us to peer deeply into the mysteries of our universe back to its origin some 13 billion years ago. I look forward to learning more about these photographs and the new images that the Webb Telescope will continue to offer as it hurdles through space millions of miles away.
Every week, we have the privilege of peering deeply into the mystery of our God, our origins and our destiny. And the Bible – still the most popular book of all time with five billion copies sold to date – provides us with images of God that help us to understand not only our origin but our eternal destiny. And, every week, we are invited to learn and reflect on these mysteries as we hurdle through space and time – our lives on earth – and we prepare to spend eternity with God in heaven. Last week’s readings and this week’s readings provide us with some really important insight into God; let’s explore them for a moment. Last Sunday, we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, Jesus contrasts the behavior of two members of the Jewish clergy – a priest and a Levite – with the behavior of a despised outsider, a Samaritan. Even though the Samaritan may have lacked a full knowledge of God’s law – as the priest and the Levite certainly had – the Samaritan fulfilled the law’s spirit better than these legal experts. That parable shows the hypocrisy of a belief in God that has no application to daily life.
Today’s story of Mary and Martha gives us another important insight into God. Above all, our faith is about relationships – our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. From the time of Abraham – whom we hear about in today’s first reading – God has called us back into a relationship with him. He longs for us to return to an intimacy that Adam and Eve enjoyed with him in his garden before they were tempted away from God by the devil. And, especially through his son, Jesus, God has called us to a relationship of loving service with one another. But, service that is not based on attentive listening to God’s word and nourished by such listening, becomes mere busyness – or worse, a way to make ourselves feel important. When Jesus says to Martha, “You are anxious and worried about many things,” he is not criticizing her for performing the duties of hospitality, but for doing so without first attending to his word. Martha, we might say, is the kind of person who likes to go about doing good without reflecting sufficiently on why. This often leads to frustration or resentment or reduces religion to nothing more than a social service.
We can contrast that to the story we hear in today’s first reading, where we see Abraham busying himself, his wife and his servants with preparing a meal and then spending time with his guests as they dined. But, it’s important to pay attention to where this took place – by the terebinth of Mamre. We all know that the terebinth of Mamre is a sacred place, where Abraham had erected an altar to God. So, he encounters his guests while he and his family are spending time with God on holy ground.
The story in today’s Gospel does not ask us to choose between being a Martha or a Mary. The true disciple of Jesus must be both. The Gospels relate that, when Jesus called his Twelve Apostles, he called them first to be with him, to learn about him and his mission, and then he sent them out to proclaim his message. But, today’s Gospel teaches us which is more important and what must come first: to be with Jesus. Our relationship with the Lord must always come first. Being with the Lord and listening to his word must be the basis, the foundation, for all that we do. When we act without listening, we can be guilty of a subtle kind of pride. We are assuming that we already know what must be done, and need no guidance. Acting without first attending to God’s word can mean doing what we want to do, not what God – or the situation in which he has placed us – requires of us. The remedy is to spend time on holy ground – like Abraham did – or sit at the Lord’s feet – as Mary of Bethany did in today’s Gospel – and listen to his word.
And, how do we do this? We do it by spending time praying and reflecting on Sacred Scripture, where God speaks to us. We do it by setting aside a part of our daily prayer time for listening to the Lord, who reveals himself to us in the silence of our hearts. And, we do it by listening attentively to the word of God preached and proclaimed whenever we join in the celebration of the Eucharist – as we’re doing right now. When we do these things, we are like Mary of Bethany choosing “the better part,” as Jesus calls it in today’s Gospel, which will not be taken from us. In short, opening our hearts and minds to Jesus and his words leads us to choose “the better part,” and helps us to be fruitful in the work of sharing the Gospel message with others and helping to build up God’s kingdom on earth. It is also one of the best ways to grow in our faith and love for Jesus, and come to experience the blessings of peace, joy and fulfillment that God wishes to give us in the busyness of our daily lives. Let’s reflect on how we can be more like Mary, so that we can be better Marthas and really good Samaritans.
Yes, it’s exciting to explore space and learn about the origin of our universe. It’s even more exciting to explore the Bible and learn about our origin as children of God and our destiny with him forever in heaven. Let’s continue to pick up the Bible and prayerfully reflect on the wonders revealed there – the wonders of our God.