Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Good is the enemy of Great

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Back in 2001, a bestselling management book, “Good to Great,” by James Collins made this profound insight about the damning effect of just settling for the good, an insidious and dangerous form of mediocrity. Jim Collins argues that “good is the enemy of great… Few people attain great lives, in large part because it is just so easy to settle for a good life.” Ironically, the same principle may be applied to our spiritual life. Have you become comfortable, complacent, with your spiritual progress and faith life? Perhaps, you may feel that you have arrived at that level of spirituality which is “good” enough, that you are better than the average Catholic. Where’s the motivation to do more? The problem is the “good” gives us a false sense of security.  We feel OK because whilst we may not be saints, at least we’re not that bad. If you feel that what you possess is already “good” enough, you may never feel motivated to do more. That’s why good is the enemy of great.  As Christians, often, the greatest enemy of the life of faith in God is not sin, but good choices which are not quite good enough and settling for the mediocre.

In today's Gospel, we have a contrast in the way two good women relate to the Lord. It’s really a contrast between the good and the better. Martha welcomed Jesus into her home by busying herself with all the tasks of hospitality - lots of activity, putting a meal together. Pay attention to this little but important detail - her only interaction with Jesus is to complain about her sister and to ask him to make Mary help her do what she wants done. Her complain and request can be verbalised in this statement: “Lord, my will (not yours) be done.” Make her help me! Mary also welcomes Jesus into her home, but for her this means not all the activity of hospitality, but rather just being with him and listening to him. Mary is more interested in Jesus than she is in hors d'oeuvres and she's not about to leave Jesus alone in the parlour. Let Martha do what she thinks best, but what Mary wants is to find out what Jesus wants. “Lord, Thy will be done.”

Both are good women, no doubt about it and both are proclaimed saints by the Church. Each has welcomed Jesus into her life, but only one thing is really necessary; Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her. What is this better part?

It is clear that the point of the message isn’t about us neglecting our household chores. The point is made about discipleship, the posture which a disciple must assume in the presence of the Lord. Ultimately, disciples cannot settle lesser when they can choose the better and even the best. In the case of this story, being the best means being in the right place. Martha was busy in the kitchen making all the necessary preparations for a guest as would be expected of a good host. But it was Mary who chose “the better part,” and this honour should not be eclipsed by Martha’s contribution. Choosing the best also means listening to the right voice. Mary who gave her full attention to the Lord heard the Words of Christ. Martha couldn’t hear anything above the noise of her busy-ness and frenzied activity. In fact, she was insisting that her “voice” be heard.

This story and Christ’s judgment begs the question: is serving bad? No, of course not. In several other places in the Gospel the Lord praised service of others: he said that he himself had come among us as one who serves; he washed his disciples' feet at the Last Supper and told them to do the same; and he said that the greatest among us would be the one who serves the rest. What Martha did was a “good” thing. What was the problem? The problem was not a choice between good and evil but between good and better. It simply was NOT the BEST thing to do at this point in time. Good was just not good enough in the face of something better. Here is what made Mary’s choice better. She recognised that Jesus had come to their home not to be fed, but to feed. The welcome he sought most was their time, their friendship, their love, their open ears and open hearts. We may boast of feeding the poor, but it is only in prayer that we are fed.

The Church Fathers have often seen in the story of the two sisters, the two fold dimension of Christian life – the active and contemplative life. Martha is representative of the active life whereas Mary that of the contemplative life. Both are important for Christian living. But they do not share the same platform. St. Gregory the Great wrote, “For the merits of the active life are great, but of the contemplative, far better.” Everything that Martha did was good. Yet in pursuing good things, she overlooked the greatest good. Mary made the better choice because she did not let service divert her attention from the Word made Flesh.  Action is important, no doubt about that, but the simple truth that many of us often find hard to accept is that prayer is more important than action. A Christian, without prayer, becomes a mere activist. We may be capable of accomplishing many good things. But the secret to greatness is prayer.

The challenge that is thrown by Jesus certainly does not sit well with many of us. In fact, our sympathies often go out to Martha. We have been generally taught that hard work is a virtue. We value work and productivity. Hardworking and productive persons are commended. Those who seem unproductive and who waste their time in leisurely pursuits including prayer are regarded as dead weight. We even gauge fellow Catholics based on their activism – a good Catholic is an active Catholic, someone who is busy serving in the parish and who gets things done. There is nothing wrong with living out our faith through action. In fact it is even commanded. But to place our entire trust on our work, our projects, our programmes, our human efforts, would be to lose sight that the Lord is the real Saviour of the World. In a world or a church where everyone is trying so hard to be saviour, do we really need Christ or God? That is why prayer is superior to action. Prayer places the necessary humbling corrective on our perception of work. Prayer puts God first. Only then do we see that work is our participation in the larger work of salvation wrought by God and never a substitute for it.

How do we reconcile the lesson of today’s gospel with our daily frenetic lives? The answer lies in finding a balance between work and prayer, with prayer always coming first. Thus, the Benedictine motto, Ora et Labor. Prayer and Work. Notice which comes first. St Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei has this to share: “For most Christians, called as they are to sanctify themselves in the middle of the world, action and contemplation cannot be regarded as two opposite ways of practising the Christian faith: an active life forgetful of union with God is useless and barren; but an apparent life of prayer which shows no concern for apostolate and the sanctification of ordinary things also fails to please God. The key lies in being able to combine these two lives, without either harming the other.” 

Today, we, too, like Mary, have listened at Jesus' feet while he has fed us with his word. We ask him likewise to give us the courage to reorder the priorities of our life. Jesus is the one thing necessary. Maybe we have let ourselves become so “distracted with all the serving” that we have forgotten why we should be serving at all. Maybe we have just given to the Lord our time and effort as if it was spare change or second hand used goods, instead of our best. As the ancient Latin maxim affirms, “Deus Optima Maxima.” “To God, the Best and the Greatest.” Mary chose the better part. Let us therefore ask God for the grace to make the same choice today and each day going forward, not to just settle for the good, but always aim for the best when it comes to God.

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