This morning, the prophet Jeremiah is urgently reminding the people Israel – and us too! – that every good thing we have, every blessing we receive, all of it comes from the Lord God Almighty. Israel was trying to find blessing in the strange gods of the peoples around them, the baals. But we have our own baals too, I think, our own strange gods in which we try to find blessing. Whether it’s possessions or wealth or prestige or career, or whatever else tends to get in the way of our relationship with God, none of these baals will ever grant us blessing. “You alone have done all these things,” Jeremiah observes. Sometimes I think we all need to take a step back and make that same observation.
Today’s readings: Sirach 44:1, 44:10-15, Psalm 132:11-18, Matthew 13:16-17
“Now I will praise those godly men and women,
our ancestors, each in their own time.”
We don’t know much, well anything really, about Joachim and Anne. Even in the Gospels where the ancestry of Jesus is traced, nothing is really said about Mary’s family, so we don’t have names that tell us anything about who Mary’s parents were. Their names themselves are really sourced by legend written more than a century after Jesus died.
The Church has always inferred that Joachim and Anne were heroic people, having given birth to a woman of great faith. Mary perhaps had learned her great reverence for God from them, perhaps had learned to trust in God’s plan from them. She knew the law and was a woman of prayer, and we can only surmise that had to come from her parents who had brought her up to love God and his commandments.
This feast helps me remember my own grandparents, whose faith and love are a part of me today. Their humor, their reverence for God, their love for people, all of that has become a part of who I am today. Maybe you too can remember some of the graces that have come from your own ancestors in faith. And for all these great people, along with Ss. Joachim and Anne, we give thanks today. As Sirach tells us today, “At gatherings their wisdom is retold, and the assembly proclaims their praise.”
During this summer chunk of the Church’s Ordinary Time, we have the beautiful opportunity to reflect on our discipleship. We are all called to discipleship, that is, to follow the Lord, in whatever way God has chosen for us. And so, during these summer months, we hear of beautiful aspects of that discipleship, tools that we should have in our discipleship toolbox, as it were. Today’s Liturgy of the Word presents us with one of the most important of those tools, and that tool is prayer.
Prayer is a tool that we must hone and use and perfect over a lifetime of discipleship. Sometimes our prayer life may be rich: we hear what God wants for us and we find ourselves connected to God throughout the day. Sometimes our prayer life may seem to be dead, or at least dormant, or even kind of stagnant: we don’t seem to hear from God, our prayers seem to be rote repetitions of useless words, we seem to just be going through the motions. What is important for the Christian disciple to know though is this: however our prayer life may be unfolding: it is important to pray, no matter what, no matter how it seems to be going.
There are three things at stake in our prayer lives which I’d like to focus on today. First, prayer must be part of a relationship with God. Second, prayer must be persistent. And third, does God really answer our prayers? The first two issues are issues that every disciple, every pray-er, must learn on their spiritual journey. And that last question is one that every disciple, if he or she is honest, probably has to answer or struggle with this question at some point in their lives.
So, first, prayer must be persistent. Jesus presents this concept in the parable he tells about prayer. Even if friendship does not get the neighbor what he wants, persistent knocking on the door will certainly help. Nothing illustrates this better, though, than the very astonishing story we have in our first reading. This reading has always intrigued me, ever since I can remember hearing it as a child. God intends to destroy the city of Sodom because of its pervasive wickedness. Abraham, newly in relationship with God, stands up for the innocent of the city, largely because that was where his nephew, Lot, had taken up residence. In what seems to be a case of cosmic “Let’s Make a Deal,” Abraham pleads with God to spare the city if just fifty innocent people could be found there. God agrees and Abraham persists. Eventually God agrees to spare the city if just ten righteous people could be found in the city of Sodom.
It is important, I think, to know that Abraham’s prayer does not really change his unchangeable God. Instead, God always intended to spare the city if there were just people in it. What I love about this reading is Abraham’s line, “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!” Here he prefigures the kind of prayer Jesus has in mind for us, we who also are but dust and ashes. The prayer Jesus teaches us is amazingly familiar, and I mean “familiar” in the sense of being close to God. Our God is not a distant potentate who has set the world in motion and then stepped back to observe events as they unfold. No, instead our God can be called “Abba, Father” and we can approach God as we would a loving parent. Because of this, we can pray, “Father, hallowed be your name…”
And this leads us to the second issue at stake for the praying disciple: prayer must come out of a relationship with God. Abraham may have been somewhat presumptuous to speak to God the way that he did. But if he didn’t know God, if he didn’t have a relationship with God, well, then his conversation would have been completely offensive, wouldn’t it? And everything that Jesus teaches us about prayer in this Gospel presumes relationship. The prayer he gives is that of a community praying to its Father God. The parable that he gives following that prayer tells of one neighbor begging another to help him provide for and unexpected, but not unwanted, guest. All that we are taught about prayer is that prayer is to be an expression of our relationship with God, or else it’s a useless exercise.
I once heard an apocryphal story of a woman who was not religious, never prayed, never worshipped. At one point in her life, she was going through some very hard times, and decided that she should pray. Not really knowing how to pray, she reached for the dusty old Bible on her shelf that someone had given her years ago but she never really opened. She decided to open it up, point to a passage, and hope it spoke to her. So that’s what she did. Opening the Bible, she pointed to a passage and read: “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” She thought that was frightening, so she decided to try again. This time she opened it up, pointed to a passage, and read: “Go, and do likewise.”
Now obviously, the woman was reading these passages out of context. Had she read the whole story around each of these quotes, she would have been clear that neither of these brief sentences spoke to her situation. But more than that, she was praying without the context of a relationship with God. Prayer can be very effective in times of crisis. But a time of crisis is not the time to learn how to pray. It is our relationship with God as disciples of the Lord that makes sense of our praying and teaches us how to speak to God. Abraham learned that, and Jesus knew it well.
The final issue is a sensitive one. So often, parishioners will tell me, “Father, I’ve prayed and prayed for (whatever the issue is) and I don’t seem to be getting any answer from God.” Whether you have a sick loved one, or a child who’s gone the wrong way, or a marriage that is troubled, or a job situation that is unhappy, or any one of thousands of other problems, you may have asked something like, “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” Today we’re hearing that we should be persistent in our prayer and that God will answer the prayers of those he loves, and so you may well be asking yourself, “What good does that do?” These are questions I get all the time, and I can understand them, having asked them a time or two myself. So let me give you my take on it with a parable out of my own life.
When my dad was dying a few years ago, I was absolutely positive that he was going to be okay. If I had my own way, of course, I would have prayed that he would live many more years, but I knew that was selfish. God had made Dad for himself, and I knew that he was going back to be with God. I wanted nothing else for him than that he would be free of pain and happy forever. I was positive that was what was going to happen. So was Dad. Just before he died, he looked up at the nurse who was attending him and said, “It’s going to be okay.” And of course that was true.
How did he know it was going to be okay? Well, he knew he’d be okay because Dad was a man of prayer. He went to Mass with my mom every Sunday and very often went to weekday Mass after he retired. He prayed his rosary and daily prayers every day. He and I used to go every Holy Thursday to pray before the Blessed Sacrament together. His wonderful life was immersed in prayer and he had no regrets. Everything was going to be okay. And because he was a man of prayer, I knew that I could let him go and that God would take care of him. Prayer is like that; it’s contagious. His example of persistent prayer was one that led me to my vocation.
The point is this: praying persistently doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to come out the way we want it to, but it does mean that everything is going to come out the way God intended it, which is so much better than our little plans. If we are people of prayer, if we pray persistently, we will be able to see the blessings in the midst of sorrow and to have confidence when everything seems to be falling apart. Sometimes, even when the circumstances don’t seem to change, the praying changes us, and makes us more open to the blessings God wants to give us in the midst of the pain.
One final note: praying persistently, as we care called to do, does not mean praying constantly for just one thing. It means praying in all ways: praying in adoration before our beautiful Savior, praying in contrition and repentance for our sinfulness, praying in thanksgiving for our many blessings, praying in supplication for our needs and the needs of all the world. It means praying, above all, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The psalmist today says, “Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me.” God intends the very best for us, we may be certain of that. And if we are people of persistent prayer, then we will indeed see blessing all around us. My prayer today is that we would all be persistent in prayer, that we would become people of prayer, and that we would never, ever, ever lose heart.
This morning’s Gospel passage is the explanation of the parable of the seed and the sower, which we heard on Wednesday morning. What we quickly find out is that the parable is all about us. Clearly the ideal is the good soil which produces much fruit, and just as clearly, we don’t want to be the soil on the path or the rocky soil, or even the soil with the thorny growth. All those soils yield nothing but dead plants, hardly an offering to God or even anything that would be pleasing to us.
When we allow ourselves to have a surface-level relationship with God, one that is not nourished by devotion and worship, we end up being easy picking for anything in the world that comes away and would snatch us out of the hands of God. Just like the soil on the path, such as it is.
When we think that we can live our faith without any kind of effort on our part, we end up with a very shallow basis for that faith. We sometimes latch on to the joy of religion or religious experience, but when it becomes hard work, we let go and have no way to keep growing. Just like the rocky soil.
When we try to live our faith and still be people of the world, we find that the faith gets choked out as our desire for more riches, more things, more prestige – or more whatever – overshadows our desire for strong relationship with God. We can’t serve two masters, and we soon take the path of least resistance, abandoning the faith for what we think will give us more happiness, at least right now. And when that fails us, we wither up and have nowhere to turn. Just like the soil with the thorny growth.
But it can’t be that way for disciples of the Lord. We have to have a faith that goes beyond the surface so that we can really know God. We have to have a faith that is developed by embracing the hard work of repentance and devotion so that we can continue to dig deep into the life of God. We have to have a faith that is single-minded and not subject to whatever ill-winds and thorns come along. We have to be that rich soil which yields not only joy for ourselves, but grace for others.
The job of a prophet is not an easy one. And we should all know, because we are all in some ways the prophetic seeds the Lord is sowing in the world. We might fall on good soil, or amongst rocks or thorns, but wherever we are, we are expected to bear fruit. We are called upon to preach the Word in our actions and sometimes our words, no matter how difficult a job it can sometimes be. And we prophesy knowing that our words and actions come from our God who is the one who places those words on our lips in the first place. Our witness can be an authentic one if we remember the words of the Psalmist today: “O God, you have taught me from my youth, and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds.”
The prophet Micah, in our first reading, proclaims the whole reason for our being here this morning. What is incredible about our God is his limitless compassion, his relentless pursuit of a people who often spurn him, his steadfast faithfulness and consistent, unconditional, unending, unmerited love for all of us. He actually delights, Micah tells us, in compassion and clemency, abandoning his righteous anger in favor of restoring us to life. “Who is there like you?” the prophet asks. No one. And that’s what brings us to celebrate this morning.
So Jesus today speaks of the “sign of Jonah.” I think this sign could mean a couple of different things. First, it is a direct parallel to the life of Jesus. Just as Jonah spent three days as good as dead in the belly of the big fish before being disgorged to a new life in Ninevah, so Jesus would spend three days dead in the tomb before being resurrected to new life.
But second, this could refer to the effects of the sign of Jonah. The Ninevites were evil people who had no idea that they should repent. But Jonah – unwillingly of course – preached to them. And they didn’t require from him miracles and wonders. They heard his word – the word of the LORD – and reformed their ways, they straightened up their act. That’s what Jesus is extolling here. It didn’t take anything but hearing the word of the Lord for those evil Ninevites to turn to God for mercy. But the Israelites, who had in Jesus a much better sign than that of Jonah still demanded a whole side show to test his words.
What about us? What does it take for us to make a change in our lives? Has God been trying to get through to us, but we keep holding out for some kind of sign? Shame on us when we do that – and most of us do at some point. We, like the Israelites, have a wonderful sign in Jesus, and we would do well to take up our own crosses and do what the Lord asks of us.
I have to confess that part of me dislikes the Gospel reading we have today. Dislike is probably too strong a word: it just kind of makes me uneasy. That’s because I don’t like the idea that there is some kind of competition between the duties of hospitality and the joy of contemplation in the Lord’s presence. That’s how this reading often comes across, and I find that difficult to accept. When I have guests over, I take it seriously. According to my family custom, there is plenty – perhaps too much – food, and I try to make my guests comfortable. That takes work – anyone who has ever had guests for dinner knows that, but I think it’s time well spent.
I’m also not wild about the idea that some often draw the conclusion that this reading places a higher priority on contemplation and prayer over the duties of ministry. Stuff needs to get done; we don’t just show up and have beautiful Liturgy happen. I think that if all we did was pray all day, we’d never get any of the Gospel done, and I don’t think that’s what our Lord intended.
Fortunately, I don’t think these are valid conclusions to be drawn from today’s Gospel – although I do think these conclusions are frequently drawn. And that’s sad for any of us who want to be in relationship with our Lord and yet know that there are the duties of our vocation to which we must attend. Nobody can spend all day in prayer, no matter what their vocation. Priests have the needs of the parish to accomplish. Parents have children to raise. Everyone has the goals of their profession to meet. And Jesus isn’t saying that any of this is wrong.
So let’s give Martha a bit of a break. Because there is a difference between the very legitimate and laudable act that Mary was doing – listening to the Word of Jesus – and just being plain old lazy. Many of us could be tempted down those roads too, and that’s not praiseworthy. And Martha’s tasks were important ones. The demands of hospitality in the ancient world were taken very seriously. And they were difficult duties, too. Think about all that Abraham and Sarah had to do: knead dough and make rolls, slaughter a steer and prepare it, and put together some curds and milk. A far cry from making a run to McChesney’s and popping some steaks on the grill! Just as Abraham leapt to his feet in our first reading to welcome the three visitors and provide them with a beautiful meal, so Martha had things to do to care for her own guest.
But where Martha went down the wrong path was that she let the details of the tasks of hospitality overshadow the hospitality itself. In doing all the things she was doing, she had actually neglected her guest. Perhaps there was a way that she could have provided refreshment to Jesus in a way that didn’t take her outside his company for so long. Maybe a simpler meal would have sufficed. When the details of hospitality overshadow the guest, then it’s not really hospitality at all.
I think that what’s at stake here is balance in our spiritual life. We are not called upon to make a choice between being Martha or being Mary. We are called upon to be both Martha and Mary. These scripture readings speaks of the service of the disciple, in Greek the word is diakonia, from which we derive our word, deacon. This tells us that the life of the Christian disciple is about service. What we see in today’s Gospel is that there are two aspects of that service. The first is represented by Martha’s work, and is the kind of service that takes care of what is necessary in order that God’s will would be done: it is a service that reaches out to those in need. The second kind of service is represented by Mary’s work. Her work is one of contemplation: she sits at the feet of Jesus to absorb his words and his presence.
Both kinds of service are necessary in the life of the Christian disciple. Saint Benedict’s motto was ora et labora – work and prayer, and that’s the call we receive in today’s Liturgy. The trick is keeping them in balance. Because it is Mary’s contemplation that gives us the spiritual refreshment necessary to reach out to those in need. We have to be people of prayer. And it is Martha’s active service that gives meaning and context to our prayers and our preaching. We have to be people who work. When we avoid either aspect of service, we are getting it wrong, and perhaps our Gospel today is a tug at our hearts to get it right.
So we need to make time for both our work and our prayer. We have to give priority to contemplation and Scripture reading and whatever kind of prayer speaks to us just as much as we give priority to the demands of our vocations, whatever those vocations may be. We have to let God speak to us in our quiet and in our activity, and to remember that doing God’s will sometimes means getting quiet and sitting still long enough for him to speak to our hearts. It may take a lifetime to get this right, but as we put effort into our service of God, we too will be choosing the better part, and it will not be taken from us.
In today’s Gospel story, the Pharisees are supposedly defending the law that the Sabbath was a day of rest, in accordance with the Third Commandment. What the disciples were doing though, was to provide food for their own hunger. The disciples weren’t rich men, and so we can probably surmise that they depended on the generosity of those with means who had been touched by Jesus’ message or ministry. The Law itself provided that grain in the fields that was not taken up by the first pass of the harvest was to be left in the field for the poor. But the Pharisees mostly didn’t care about the poor, so they wouldn’t have seen that application. But even worse than that, they didn’t see that Jesus was inaugurating a whole new Law – one that God always intended – one that provided for the needs of people rather than just the minutiae of the law.
So we have to hear this too. Because there is always the temptation to defend the rules instead of seeing how the rules apply to people. Even our own Canon law, with its many rules and regulations, provides that the most important part of the law is that it is to assist in the salvation of God’s people. The law is meaningless in and of itself. Law is there to help people on the way to salvation, to help people to know Christ, who is certainly greater than the temple, greater than the law. And so, whenever we’re tempted to bind ourselves with our own interpretation of the law or rules of the Church, we should instead submit ourselves to the Gospel, which is the only authentic interpreter of the Law. For disciples of the Lord, there is something greater than the temple here.