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Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - Focus on the One Thing Necessary

Robert Barron - Focus on the One Thing Necessary

Robert Barron - Focus on the One Thing Necessary
TOPICS: Focus, Priorities

Peace be with you. Friends, the Gospel for today is that wonderful and familiar story of Martha and Mary. But the Church sets us up for this in a really interesting way by giving us a first reading from the book of Genesis. We're in chapter 18; it's this very mysterious story of Abraham being visited by three guests. But listen to how this thing begins, how strange this is: "The LORD appeared to Abraham". So this is a theophany, this is an appearance of God. "The Lord appeared by the terebinth of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up," what did Abraham see? "He saw three men standing nearby".

Well, how can a Christian not be rather fascinated by this? It's being described as a theophany, an appearance of God, the God of Israel. And yet he appears as three figures. You know that great icon that's painted by Rublev, the Russian artist, and it's of the Trinity we always say, but it's actually a picture of these three visitors of Abraham, who are recognized as a kind of foreshadowing of the Trinitarian revelation of the Father, Son, and Spirit. And listen to this interesting detail. "When he saw them, he," this is Abraham, "ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing down to the ground, he said: 'Sir, if I may ask a favor.'"

So it says he bowed down to them, the three of them, but then he addresses them as "sir," as one. Interesting, at the very least, this play of the one and the three, which we Christians recognize. But here's the point I want to make. Once he understands this is a theophany, an appearance of God, what does he do? Well, he gives into this flurry of hospitality. So he serves them himself and he has the fattened calf killed and he arranges for drinks and for food. And then he waits on them himself. And you say on the one hand, yeah, it's a beautiful picture of Middle Eastern hospitality. It's interesting about that too; in a rather severe country, where a traveler is coming across a habitation, this might be a matter of life and death. He's been crossing a desert. That's not just a matter of, "Oh, let me give you a few little things to munch on".

This might be a matter of life and death. So they showed great hospitality beautifully, but a deeper spiritual point is going on. Once you know you're dealing with God, he deserves all of your attention. Your life is about him. All your thoughts, all your moves, all your actions, they're about him, they're focused and centered on him. It's the priority given to God in life. That's what we're meant to see here, the unicity of Abraham's attention, the clarity of his prioritization. There's no competition here. He's not saying, "Oh, look, let me take care of a few other things before I get to the three of you". No, no, no. He's all about them. Not, "Oh, let me have my servants do that for me". No, no, no. He will do it himself. He becomes a servant once he knows he's in the presence of God.

You don't mess around with God. You don't make God secondary or tertiary in your life. No, no. He is the primary source of your attention. Okay. With that in mind, I think it's really interesting how the Church gives us this story. We now turn to the familiar Martha and Mary. May I say, after years of preaching on this story, it's one that bugs people big time. I hear more complaints about the Martha-Mary story, usually from people who are defending Martha, that Jesus is being too tough on this lady. You know the story, Jesus comes to the home of Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. Martha is caught up, it says, in all the details of hospitality.

Well, I mean, here's the first thing: we should know from the first story from Genesis, they're not complaining about hospitality. That's not the problem. I mean, Abraham was in a flurry of activity around hospitality. That's not really the problem, but Martha's given over to all this and Mary sits attentively in the attitude of a disciple at the feet of Jesus. So that's the way you'd arrange yourself when a great master, a rabbi, would come. You'd sit at his feet and you'd soak in his words. So there's busy Martha and there's contemplative, focused Mary. And Martha famously complains, "Lord, tell her to help me. Here I am, taking care of this whole operation".

Imagine when you're in the kitchen and you're fussing around and you're trying to get the dinner ready; all these people and the different demands, and you've got to time your cooking, and you have to welcome him, and you have to take care of that one. It's a lot. Anyone that's had a party knows how demanding that is. So Martha understandably complains about her sister who's just sitting around doing nothing as far as she can tell. What's Jesus' response? "Martha, Martha". I love that, the double use of her name there; it shows the intimacy, that these really were friends. It's lovely; I think we often hear of Jesus' interlocutors or his disciples or his formal Apostles and then his opponents, etc. But it's kind of rare to hear of his friends and to watch them in action.

And that little line to me always gives it away. That's the way you talk to someone that you're intimate with, that you're friendly with. "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing". That's the key, it seems to me, to this story. It's not hospitality that's the problem. Again, Abraham was showing frenetic hospitality. It's not like, "oh, she's living the active life and the active life is not as good as a contemplative life". I don't think that's getting to the heart of it. Again, listen. "Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things". Like most of us. I mean, right now I could tell you, I'm not going to bore you with it, all the little things I'm worried about.

Some aren't that little, but I mean, all the many things that I'm concerned about right now: my personal life and my professional life, my life as a bishop, this obligation, this pastoral opportunity, this person wants to talk to me, this person I talked to last week and I still haven't resolved the situation. All of that, the many things. You've got them too. You could tell me right now the many things that you're anxious and upset about. The problem is if we focus on the many, we remain in a kind of splintered consciousness. This and that and, "Oh, there's that I'm worried about, and that reminds me of this, and then yesterday that happened and then tomorrow that's going to happen".

And I find myself now divided. Remember, one of the names of the devil is "diabolos", "dia-balein" means "to scatter" apart the many. It's a sign of the demonic, that I'm scattered. That's why you're anxious and worried. There's a need of only one thing. And that's what Mary has chosen. I love the Latin here. If you look at the Latin version of this Gospel, that little phrase, the "unum necessarium," the one thing necessary. Now, what is that? Is he saying, "Don't worry about all these particular things"? No, no. But listen now. Amidst all of them, underneath all of them, surrounding all of them, conditioning all of them, there's the one great concern, which is God.

When my soul is focused entirely upon God, then I understand how the many things fit into my life, then I've put in a secondary or tertiary position all those many particular things I'm worried about. But above them all, through them all, under them all, the one great thing, the "unum necessarium," is God. Remember I've said to you before, this is now a metaphysical point, that God is not one thing among many. So I'm worried about my appointment tomorrow, I'm worried about this conversation I had yesterday, I'm worried about what's going to happen next week, I'm worried about God, and I'm worried about my car...

Well, no, that's not the way it works. It's all the little things, and then englobing all of them, under all of them, through all of them is God, who's not one being among many but the sheer act of being itself, that which gives rise to the totality of finite things, the creator of all things, "ipsum esse" in the language of Thomas Aquinas. God's very nature is to be. Therefore, when I'm focused upon God as the unum necessarium, then everything else in my life tends to fall into the right place. When I'm not focused on God, what happens to me? I become like Martha; I'm anxious and upset about all these many things because I haven't found the unum necessarium. "She has chosen the better part".

It doesn't mean she's chosen the contemplative over the active; I wouldn't put it that way. That's too, I think, simplistic. Mary is focused on the one thing that really counts, which is the Lord. And then she sees the rest of her life in proper order and with proper prioritization. That lovely line from St. Augustine always comes to mind here. He says, "Ama Deum et fac quod vis". That means, "Love God and then do whatever you want". And it sounds like some kind of permissiveness, but it's not that. If you love God, you've found the unum necessarium, you are properly focused on God, then the rest of your life will fall into harmony.

If you really love God, you will do the right thing. You'll find the right way to order and organize all the many things. But if you are not focused on God, then the many things tend to distract you, and you become anxious and upset. So take Martha there. Look, we're all sinners here, we all fall into this. When you find yourself beset by anxieties, ask a simple question: "Have I found the unum necessarium? Is God clearly the center of my life"? Okay. Let me end with just a practical recommendation.

The great Fulton Sheen made this really the center of his, I think, spiritual life. It was picked up actually a couple of generations after Sheen by a lot of the young kids that I taught at the seminary. I made it my practice beginning so many years ago now: the Holy Hour. I begin every day, I get out of bed, it's the first thing I do, I go to my chapel and I spend an hour in prayer. I pray my Office, which is my obligation as a priest, but I might pray the Rosary, I might do the Jesus Prayer, I might just sit in silence, I might just say "Lord, help me" for ten minutes.

The point is, I begin the day consciously focused on the unum necessarium. And it has a way of putting all of my anxious concerns in their right place. They don't disappear; I'm still worried and concerned about all those different things. But, look, I'm a sinner, I don't always manage this perfectly, but I try to place it always within the context of the unum necessarium. That way Martha and Mary can both come together. Think of Abraham. The minute he knew this was God, everything else fell away and he was utterly devoted. Good. Live your life that way, and you'll find the many concerns tend to find their proper place. And God bless you.
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