Do not pass me by

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16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: July 21, 2013
Gen 18:1-10; Ps 15; Col 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

The scene in our first reading is memorable. Abraham and his household are camped near Hebron, some 20 miles to the south of present-day Jerusalem in the Holy Land. It was a hot day, and perhaps Abraham was dozing as he sat in the entrance of his tent during the heat of the day. Then, suddenly, he looked up and saw three men. He sprang into action. Offering hospitality was an incredibly important duty in his culture—far more so than in ours—and he hurried to do so—he ran to greet them. And he begged them: Please do not pass your servant by.

It was a privilege and a duty for Abraham to offer to these three men a cool rest, a washing of their feet, and good food to eat. We can tell that he would have been quite saddened if they had not accepted his offer; but they did. And it turned out that they were no ordinary men: it was the Lord himself who was visiting Abraham. And Christians have always noted the number, three men, and wondered about the connection to the three Persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It was the Lord who was Abraham’s guest that day.

And the words that Abraham first called out to his guest can be found in a 19th century Protestant hymn, which begins:

Pass me not, O gentle Savior,
hear my humble cry;
while on others thou art calling,
do not pass me by.

2000 years later, in the village of Bethany, much closer to Jerusalem, a woman named Martha had her own opportunity to offer hospitality to the Lord—to welcome our Lord Jesus, true God and true man, into her village and her home. And we can well imagine that she was happy and honored to do so. And she set about to offer him good hospitality, just as Abraham had done. The hymn continues:

Let me at thy throne of mercy
find a sweet relief,
kneeling there in deep contrition;
help my unbelief.
Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry;
while on others thou art calling,
do not pass me by.

And isn’t this evocative of the desires that we find so often within ourselves and those around us: at different stages, to know that God exists, to know that he loves us, to receive his gifts, to gain some strong experience of his presence and love. Especially when he seems distant, or when others seem to have a deeper relationship with him than we do, we may call out in prayer, “Do not pass me by,” and wonder what we need to do, like busy Martha, in order to get him to visit us too.

How interesting, then, that the situation gets turned around: the host and the guest get reversed. It is certainly not the first time this happens in the Scriptures. In the Book of Proverbs, the figure of Lady Wisdom calls out to human beings and invites them to her feast, to learn from her. In Psalm 23, it is the Lord who “sets a table before me.” And here in Bethany, it is the Lord Jesus who is inviting both sisters to receive his caring hospitality. And Mary accepts, sitting beside him at his feet listening to him speak; while Martha in her busyness has passed him by.

We can well imagine our Lord Jesus speaking the last verse of the hymn to Martha, whom he loves—and to us:

Thou the spring of all my comfort,
more than life to me,
whom have I on earth beside thee?
Whom in heaven but thee?
Beloved, Beloved, hear my humble cry;
while on others thou art calling,
do not pass me by.

Poor Martha is indeed burdened with much serving; as Jesus says, she is anxious and worried about many things. She wants to see Jesus, to know him; but it seems that she has been convinced—by whom? By her society? Her parents? The media? Her own guilt and insecurity?—that she needs to perform, that she needs to do things for him to win his love. When, as he says, only one thing is needed. It is time for her to be the guest, and to be fed and refreshed by him. It is Jesus who is calling to Martha, “Do not pass me by.” Will she answer his prayer?  Will we?

At one point in the Gospels, our Lord Jesus spoke of how the scribes and Pharisees “tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.” (Matt 23:4)  How tragic if we should tie up heavy burdens and place them upon our own backs, that our Lord never asks of us!  It is important that we examine ourselves sometimes.  Do you consider yourself “busy”?  With what?  Do you consider yourself too busy to pray?  Why?  Who asked you to do all these things?  If we feel burdened and overwhelmed, it is probably not the Lord’s expectations that we are seeking to fulfill, but someone else’s, which are far harsher.

How important it is to turn our attention to find out what the Lord asks of us!  It may be difficult, but it is not crushing.  As our Lord Jesus said:  “my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matt 11:30)

How can we accept the Lord’s invitation not to pass him by, but to sit at his feet and listen to him, as Mary did that day?  I offer three suggestions, three different forms of prayer:

  • First, picture a family member or good friend who cares about you but who lives at a distance—someone you see perhaps only every few weeks; someone who wants to hear all about you and what has happened to you, your experiences, your feelings.  Can you picture preparing to meet this person who loves you, ready to tell them all about yourself?  Then take just such a conversation and have it with the Lord—even though he knows all this about you already.  He wants to hear this from you!  Tell him these things in prayer. Then stop and spend some time waiting to see what he will give back to you:  take some time to receive his response.
  • Second, pray with Scripture.  Open to one of the Gospels, perhaps the Gospel of Luke.  Don’t read for speed; take just a “pericope,” a chunk or story segment.  Read slowly; and pay close attention for any word or phrase that catches your attention, that moves you, whether in a strong or subtle way.  Then stay with that word or phrase:  see what the Lord may be wanting to tell you through it, or what it might be prompting you to say in prayer.  After a little while, when you are done with that phrase, then move on.  In this way, you will be allowing inspired Scripture to be a means of prayer—helping you to hear the Lord and to speak to him.
  • Third, come to Eucharistic adoration.  Come into his real presence in the Blessed Sacrament—whether in our church (open every day) or in front of the monstrance in the adoration chapel (open Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays).

How good and necessary; how freeing and sweet; to imitate Mary, in coming to sit at the feet of the Lord!  Let us take on the one thing that we need, which will not be taken from us.  Let us answer our Lord’s plea to us, who are busy with so many things:  Do not pass me by!

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