Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gn. 18: 1-10A; Ps. 15: 2-5; Col. 1: 24-28; Lk. 10: 38-42.
This week's Gospel reading is fun. It's about work and relaxation. It contains Good News for workers that contrasts sharply with the attitude of their employers.
The reading has Jesus and his closest companion, Mary Magdalen, exemplifying the Master's habitual attitude towards work which is exactly what American capitalists condemn as laziness. Its take-away: forget Martha's overwork. Instead, be more like Jester Jesus and Lazy Mary.
I'll explain that in a minute. But before I do, let me offer an amusing reminder of our culture's deification of work. It came a couple weeks ago in a Fox News interview with Donald Luskin, the CEO of Trend Macrolytics, a prominent Wall Street consulting firm. As such, it's his job to forecast market trends and offer stock market advice to institutional investors. I imagine he spends his day making phone calls, having three-martini luncheon meetings with clients, or maybe advising them on the golf course or in a luxury suite at Wrigley Field. For him, that's work. It ultimately ends in pressing computer keys to implement his momentous decisions to "buy" or "sell." Whew!
In any case, Luskin was asked on Fox about a recent report showing that retirement is becoming a thing of the past. In fact, nearly one in four Americans will never have enough money to quit the daily grind. When asked if he found the trend worrisome, Luskin said it didn't concern him personally. On the contrary, and employing theological language, the man actually called it a "blessing" and a "miracle" that people have been relieved of the burden of retirement that workers had to endure in less fortunate times.
"It doesn't worry me personally. I guess I'm one of those people who plans never to retire. I mean, I've got to tell you, what do people do when they retire? You know, how do you spend a day? I mean, is bowling that interesting? Is fishing that interesting? I mean, I happen to love my work. Why do I want to stop it? You know, it's not like it hurts. Why would I stop it? This is great. What a great country where we have the opportunity to keep working. What a miracle where our lives are long enough and we're healthy enough and mentally alert enough, so we don't have to retire like generations before us. This is a great blessing. You should embrace it."
Such words need very little comment. What do retired people do? Are you serious? How about: what you always wanted to do but couldn't while working two or three meaningless jobs involving physical activity, danger, injury, heavy lifting or boring repetitious tasks for clueless employers like Luskin himself. How about: spending time with your spouse and grandchildren? How about volunteering for Habitat, working for Marianne Williamson campaign (to change political consciousness), traveling, reading, writing poetry, listening to or playing music, making love, taking naps, meditating, playing checkers or chess, hiking, learning a new skill, painting -- and yes, bowling or fishing?
What Luskin reflects is our entire culture that locates "real life" in the shop or market place. In fact, we're taught to prize overwork. This is especially true of "American" culture where unlike our European counterparts, we spend an average of three hours per week more on the job. That adds up to something like a month more of work each year than our European sisters and brothers. Most important, Americans take fewer (and shorter) vacations. The average American takes off fewer than six weeks a year; the average Frenchman almost 12. Swedes take the longest vacations 16 ½ weeks per year.
Today's gospel reading from Luke urges us to correct our tendency to overwork before it's too late. In doing so, it directs our attention to the counter-cultural nature of Jesus' teachings about how we should spend our days.
Yes, Jesus was extremely counter-cultural even about work. We shouldn't forget that. As Deepak Chopra points out (in his The Third Jesus), the Sermon on the Mount, which captures the essence of Jesus' wisdom, has him explicitly telling his disciples not to earn a living, save money, plan ahead or worry about the future. He actually does! Read it for yourself.
And did you notice the description of the "Just Person" in today's responsorial psalm? Man or woman, they harm no one, do not slander, speak ill of no one, and refuse to accept bribes. All of that raises no eyebrow. We yawn: none of that seems particularly counter-cultural.
But how about, "They lend not money at usury?" Could anything be further from the work Mr. Luskin idealizes? Yes, lending at interest is considered robbery and is forbidden in the Bible. [What if all Christians (along with Jews and Muslims) kept that commandment? Our world with its economy based on credit and interest, would be entirely different.]
More to the day's point: our lives would not be the same if we acted like Mary instead of Martha as depicted in today's Gospel reading.
The misdirection of traditional sermons obscures that possibility. Customarily homilists understand the story of Martha and Mary in a strictly spiritual sense. Their commentaries use the two sisters to compare the active and the contemplative lives as though poor Martha stood for lay people having to wait on others with no time for prayer like the more otherworldly Mary. Martha's sister "choses the better part" like a contemplative "religious" eschewing "the world of work" and spending their time pondering the spiritual teachings of Jesus and living a life rapt in prayer and contemplation.