One of the fundamental truths of the Catholic faith, and one that I return to on a regular basis, is that God initiates and we respond. The opening chapters of Scripture depict how God created all things, doing so by his word: “Then God said: ‘Let there be light, and there was light” (Gn 1:3). He then “created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gn 1:27). After the Fall, God called Noah, then Abraham and Moses and so forth, down through time.
Father Hans Urs von Balthasar noted that “in the Old Covenant, everything begins with ‘Hear, O Israel!’” He then makes this fundamental observation: “Action must follow upon and obey this listening.” Right action flows from and follows upon right hearing. It’s not that actions don’t matter, but that our actions must be in response to God’s word. If we try to act before hearing the word, we will, in one way or another, create and follow our own word, which is a sure path to error and sin. This is a constant theme in Scripture, but one that is difficult to grasp and live in this frantic age of constant dispute and distraction.
Abraham, of course, did not have to deal with smartphones and mindless entertainment. But he did have many responsibilities and a life of nearly constant manual labor. However, he was sitting in apparent silence “in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot,” when he was visited by three mysterious men. Who were they? Some of the Church Fathers argued they were all angels, while others thought at least one was God himself, foreshadowing in some way the Incarnation. Whatever the exact case, there’s no doubt that God had initiated the mysterious meeting with the patriarch in order to commune with him in a concrete, intimate way.
And then there is the grace of a promised heir: “I will return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son” (Gn 18:10). When God visits the faithful, he brings life, even if it isn’t always immediately clear how or when it will be realized. And the story of this promise to Abraham and Sarah points down the path of history to a stunning promise made to a younger woman, born without sin (Lk 1:27-33).
When God’s word is with us, we must calibrate our priorities and our souls to it. And what if the Incarnate Word is in your living room? Martha, we must admit, was being the perfect hostess. Her busyness did not indicate a lack of faith, as she certainly must have believed that Jesus was a great prophet. What better way to acknowledge his presence than to care for his physical needs and to provide a meal? After all, isn’t that what Abraham did when the three visitors appeared?
Martha’s sister, however, sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to him speak. Martha, exasperated, tried to elicit Jesus’ support in her demand that Mary be more helpful. Jesus, rather than rebuking Martha for doing a good thing, pointed her toward what is even greater. In the words of St. Gregory the Great, “Martha’s concern is not reproved, but that of Mary is even commended … For the merits of the active life are great, but of the contemplative, far better.”
Martha’s actions were good, but in doing good she missed the greatest good. She missed hearing the words of the Word! And in doing so, she was missing the intimate communion for which she was created. God created us and now he calls us.
It’s up to us to come before him with an attentive heart.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.