Martha, Mary and Prayer

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday of Year C

by Fr. Tommy Lane

You tell me that you do your work well, you don’t harm anyone, so you are a good Christian, although you admit that you don’t pray. I would like to ask you, “If you do your work well, you don’t harm anyone, but you don’t pray, what is the difference between you and a computer?” No difference. Computers work well, harm no one, and don’t pray. We can get so busy that we forget what life is all about. We can get so involved in pursuing the things money can buy that we forget the things money can’t buy. Jesus never said to work always, but he did say to pray always. We are not meant to be workaholics. We are sons and daughters of God since baptism. We could not be more privileged. It is a pity to see work reducing us sometimes to the level of computers.

Martha was distracted with all the serving while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to him. No doubt Martha would describe herself as someone who did her work well and didn’t harm anyone. But it did not bring her peace of mind; she was vexed with her sister and Jesus was not entirely satisfied with her either:

Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, it is not to be taken from her. (Luke 10:41-42)

Clearly working well and harming no one is not nearly as good as also spending time with Jesus. Martha learned that Jesus would be much happier if she spent time with him rather than running all over the house. Perhaps we could express this in a more mundane way; we would be much more pleasing to Jesus if we spent time with him in prayer every day as well as doing good, rather than being a do gooder who does not pray. Or again perhaps we could express it in this way; we are called to be Christians - people in relationship with Christ - and not just do gooders. I would like to encourage you to spend a substantial amount of time in prayer every day. Two minutes, three minutes, or five minutes is not enough. I believe God calls Christians to pray for hours every day. It is great to see so many who spend one hour before Jesus in the Eucharist in the Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration Chapels.

Time spend in prayer is not time wasted. It is the most fruitful time of all. No one would say that prayer is easy, but it is certainly rewarding. We live such busy lives that sometimes we might not even be aware of what is really going on deep within us. We only become aware when we take the time to quieten down and pray. Usually people call the awareness during prayer of what is happening deep within them distractions, but these distractions are often messages to help us get our lives in order. Distractions can be of many kinds. If something painful from the past keeps popping into our head during prayer, that may signal that God wants to give us the grace of healing that wound in prayer. That wound is an obstacle to our friendship with God and needs to be healed. Then ask God in prayer to heal that wound. Whatever emotions or desires arise in our mind during prayer may be a message to us to bring that matter before the Lord in prayer to get it resolved in prayer. For example, anger and forgiveness arising during prayer make us aware of the need to forgive.

Sometimes we become distracted in prayer simply because our minds are so active. St Teresa of Avila, writing about this, said it is like having a mad man in the attic. We may need to give the mad man in the attic something to occupy himself if we are to have less distractions during prayer. There is a story told about someone riding an elephant through an African village. The elephant would poke his trunk into everything while passing by and cause damage. So to prevent this, the man gave the elephant a stick to hold in his trunk. He was then able to ride through the village without the elephant causing any trouble. That was his way to occupy the mad man in the attic. How do we occupy the mad man in the attic or give the elephant a stick for his trunk? Maybe playing very quiet easy-listening reflective music in the background might help. Looking at a holy picture or a lighted candle might help. When you notice yourself becoming distracted you can look at the picture or candle again. Reading a few verses from the Bible would help you to concentrate again. Whatever way we occupy the mad man in the attic the important thing is to meet Jesus in prayer. If we really meet Jesus in prayer we will be uplifted and much better afterwards.

Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part, it is not to be taken from her. (Luke 10:41-42)

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013

This homily was delivered when I was engaged in parish ministry in Ireland before joining the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

More homilies for the Sixteenth Sunday Year C

Martha, you worry and fret about so many things - Mary has chosen better

Slow Down to Enjoy Life and Spend Time with Jesus

Do we give God time and space in our lives every day or are we too busy? 2007

Mary at the feet of Jesus - Consecrated Contemplative Life 2010

Homilies on listening to the Word of God:

Your Word is a Lamp for my Steps and a Light for my Path

They have the Scriptures, let them listen to them!

Second Reading: The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering 2008

stories about prayer