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Homily for 21st Sunday Ordinary Time, Year C, 2022

A few weeks ago, we had the story of Martha and Mary. Jesus praised Mary for choosing the better part, for focussing on Jesus alone. He also criticised Martha for being distracted by many things. At the time, I spoke about how, when it comes to that story, we can make the mistake of thinking that Martha is the hard worker, and Mary is slacking off. I mentioned how prayer teaches us that it is really Mary doing the hard work because real prayer is hard.

I wonder whether today’s gospel sheds further light on that gospel. I wonder whether it helps us think a bit more on the fact that Mary is focussed on one thing, Jesus alone, while Martha is thinking about many things. Perhaps Jesus is alerting us to the importance of attention in the spiritual life. Perhaps he is telling us, in some respects, to narrow our focus. What do I mean by this?

More and more psychologists and cognitive scientists are discovering the fundamental importance of attention. True attention and its focus on the right things seems to go a long way to establishing and maintaining mental and physical health. Attention on the higher things, and especially attention on God, introduces coherence into one’s life. The hard work of paying attention to the “first things first” sorts out our life. As Jesus tells us, seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else will be given to you.

We also see a sort of inverse proof of the importance of real attention through how the world tries to distract us. The Bible and Jesus make it abundantly clear that there is a spiritual battle going on for our souls. If we take this seriously, then we can see what is important not only from what Jesus says, but also how the world is attacking us. And it is obvious at the moment that the world is seeking to distract us. It is seeking to scatter our thoughts. Most of social media is designed to keep us flitting from one thing to another, to keep us wanting different things, to reduce our span of attention. It is seeking to stop us becoming integrated people. Its aim is dissolution. The aim is a noisy world so that we do not listen for the Word of God.

And so Jesus tells us enter by the narrow door. Focus on the one thing necessary. We don’t have to guess where we should direct our attention. In the parable of the good shepherd, Jesus tells us that he is the door. Our job therefore is just to focus, to master our distractions, get control of ourselves and pay attention to Jesus.

When we think about this, this is all rather obvious, especially if we read it with a similar saying in the Gospel of St Matthew. That reads: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

What do I mean when I say it is obvious? If we learn about any great artist or really anyone who is skilled at his or her job, there is always an element of attention to detail. However, it is precisely the attention to detail that frees the artist to do more. In noticing different colours, in seeing how a story is put together and which words work well to communicate a moment, in noticing how some pattern works, in hearing how a song is put together, in discerning one’s emotions and one’s reactions to certain situations: all these examples of close attention free one to see still more the next time, to enjoy still more life, to engage more holistically in one’s life.

So, perhaps what Jesus is saying is: it is a hard road to a narrow gate, but beyond this is the real freedom, the really wide world. Pretending that it is wide now, that life involves no work or that it is easy, is not true life. I think most of us know the truth of this in some way.

Of course, all of these things are kind of secondary. What Jesus is really talking about is our death. The gate is narrow because it looks like death: my death: my death to myself. The pattern of our life is fundamentally our baptism into the death of Christ. This shows us what the gate looks like, what the finish line looks like, what life looks like, namely, the Cross of Christ.

Our life then, our attention then is a daily taking up of our cross. This alone fits us for the narrow door. Only through constant focus and attention do we begin to appropriate our baptism such that we begin to recognise the Cross, our death as Good News. This is what heals us. Attention in the form of dying to myself, in the form of praying, repentance, forgiving, caring for my neighbours, killing my ego, conquering my passions, obeying God’s commandments.

The living out of my baptism transforms me into someone who recognises death as eternal life. All this is the task of accepting the gift that Christ wants to give me. This alone allows me to see the Cross as victory, as resurrection, as the fullness of divine adoption we hear about in our second reading. And, as per our first reading, this alone fits us to be God’s messengers to the world.


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