Sunday Scriptures

Choosing Between Good and Better

by Msgr. Joseph P. Calise

“Jesus at the house of Mary and Martha” Harold Copping, 1927.

As part of a “Sunday Scriptures” reflection a few weeks ago, I referenced the book “The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity” by Matthew Kelly. I wrote, “The book challenges us to ask ourselves four questions: Who am I? What am I here for? What matters most? What matters least?” That understanding of what is important, what matters, certainly has a central role in this Sunday’s Gospel.

The sisters, Martha and Mary, welcome Jesus to their home. Martha busies herself getting food ready and making sure that everyone has what he or she needs, while Mary sits and talks with Jesus. A tender, human scene ensues. Martha begins to complain that she is doing all the work and even asks Jesus to tell Mary to get up and help her.

When I was a seminarian at the North American College, I had the good fortune of meeting family members who lived in Rome. One Saturday we were celebrating the First Communion of the youngest member of the family, Monica. The local pastor was kind enough to allow me to give her the Eucharist for the first time because I had been ordained a deacon a few weeks before.

The Mass was followed by a wonderful meal in her father’s (my second cousin’s) house. I still haven’t found a restaurant that can compete with the meal we ate. What I found interesting was the table arrangement. There were two tables — one for the men and Monica because it was her special day and the other for the women. They sat at the table closest to the kitchen. When one of the female guests sat at the men’s table, not one of the men commented on it.

The women, however, had plenty to say. They were offended not by the cultural presupposition that they were going to be working throughout the meal, but by her presumption that she wouldn’t be working alongside them. They, like Martha, did not remain silent.   

When asked to intervene because of her sister’s seeming avoidance of house work, Jesus gave an unexpected response, “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.”

I am sure Jesus had a good meal that afternoon — a meal that was the result of much affectionate effort and hard work. But that’s not why he went there. He went there to see people he loved.

Martha’s work was appreciated and, no doubt, enjoyed — but so was Mary’s company. Mary’s choice was not between something good and something bad, but between something good and something better.

When the choice is between good and bad, the right choice is, I hope, obvious.  Discerning the better of two goods is not always that simple. Even though many people work extra hours to provide better for their families, I have yet to hear a retiree reflect on how he or she would have preferred to work more and see their families less.

Providing for one’s dependents is not only good but necessary, but one’s dependents need more than what money can buy. The world gives us mixed signals about what is important and what is immediate; about what we have to do as compared to what we want to do; what is allowed and what is right; what is legal and what is moral.

Each day we need to pray for the knowledge of what is “the better part.”  If our ultimate goal as Christians is the kingdom, then today we should ask, “What can bring me closer to it?” Which choice will help me “know, love and serve Christ” best (to use the vocabulary of the Baltimore Catechism I studied at St. Sylvester’s, City Line, years ago).

I wonder if, at her First Communion celebration, Monica would have preferred to go to a restaurant? The food wouldn’t have been as good, but she would have been able to sit with her father and mother, uncles and aunts — all those who loved her and wanted to be with her. And no one would have had anything to say.

Readings for Sixteenth  Sunday of Ordinary Time

Genesis 18:1-10A

Psalm 15: 2-3,3-4,5

Colossians 1:24-28

Luke 10: 38-42

Msgr. Calise is the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka and Transfiguration parish, Maspeth.

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