Prayer in a Busy World by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." The Lord said to her in reply, "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."
The pious Lutheran pastor may have had a point. He said the television set was "the devil's tabernacle." Some would say he was prescient when he made the observation in the early 1950s. Others would say that "Howdy Doody" and "Leave it to Beaver" and "The Milton Berle Show" (not to mention the "Fulton Sheen" program) were not the stuff of the devil. But today with a series like "Sex in the City" and the adult movies (also known as "arrested-adolescent-sexuality movies") of expanded cable, few souls could argue with the pastor's prediction.
Perhaps the pastor did not intend his "devil's tabernacle" epithet as a prediction. Maybe he understood something about the obsessions of fallen human nature. To be single-minded in the face of danger or opportunity may be virtuous. While any fixation that displaces Christ as the source and summit of one's life is diabolical, many fixations risk becoming the "devil's tabernacle": television, the stock market, hobbies and even human relationships.
In this week's Gospel, Christ visits two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha has a fixation of the moment. She is "burdened with much serving," while Mary "sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak." Martha complains, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." There is irony in the request. Mary seems to be suggesting that the Lord is part of the problem, allowing Mary to relax in His presence. Martha is demanding that Jesus fix the problem He Himself allowed through presumed indulgence. Martha, like many mothers, suspected Mary and her Guest were taking her good work for granted.
Christ responds gently (notice the kindly repetition of Martha's name) bur firmly: "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." Always the master of the moment, Jesus sees Martha's problem for what it is. It is clearly not her busy work of preparation. The problem identified by Christ is Martha's fixation on anxiety and worry. Her obsession was so untoward that it rose to impatience and resentment and likely some jealousy. One supposes Martha wanted Mary to abandon their divine Guest (perhaps to play solitaire) and help with the work of food preparation.
Food preparation is very important. Ask any priest. But listening to the words of Christ is "the better part." Ask any (please God) priest. This passage traditionally has become a helpful launching pad to discuss the superiority of the contemplative life over the active life. This is not to disparage the active life in any way. But the contemplative life gives direction to one's active life (much as the logistical support of an army supports the purposes of soldiers). This distinction is found also in the Book of Genesis. God "works" for six days and "rests" on the seventh, giving man a rule of life. Our work not only is meant to sustain us, but it is also meant to direct us to rest and worship on Sunday.
In this fallen world there are many distractions and distortions. Work can become an end in itself - a diabolical object of worship - rather than a necessary and praiseworthy means leading to worship. Similarly other events and conditions of life easily become ends in themselves, or obsessions and fixations. Martha was "anxious and worried about many things." She was obsessed with worry and made it a kind of "devil's tabernacle" of alternative worship. Her anxieties displaced Christ, who literally stood before her as the center of her life.
Most of us have a good deal of sympathy for Martha because like her we have our own fixations. In honesty, Martha's preoccupation represents us and our inclinations more than the devotion of Mary. We are anxious about our jobs, our health, our opportunities and our relationships. We too easily forget the loving providence of the Lord while turning over our lives to obsessions and anxieties.
In connection with the devil's tabernacle and the false worship of our anxieties, elsewhere in the Gospel, Christ is clear:
"Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
"Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you. O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day." (Mt 6:25-34)
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