Lots of ordinary Catholics feel guilty stepping out of the rat race to pray. They often feel as though seeking the peace and guidance of God in prayer is somehow self-indulgent.
That struggle is well illustrated by a difficult Gospel story about two sisters from Bethany:
“As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary [who] sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.’
“The Lord said to her in reply, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her’” (Lk 10:38–42).
This story is fraught with a tension that Christians have struggled with for 2,000 years: the relationship of faith and works.
You and I battle with a weakened will, a darkened intellect, and disordered appetites that afflict us in various ways due to the effects of original sin. It’s what Paul lamented when he said, “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Rom 7:15).
It’s a lament heard in a million confessionals, a million Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and a million marriage counseling sessions. We are fallen and we have a hard time keeping our balance—and that includes the balance between prayer and works.
The devil loves our dilemma and enjoys tormenting us with the anxiety that we have to choose between prayer and works. He loves to whisper accusations that, whatever we are doing, we should do the opposite.
In contrast, the Catholic faith proposes to us the liberating truth that faith and works are two blades on one pair of scissors. It’s in our blood—literally. For, of course, the heart and soul of a eucharistic faith like ours is that Christ is both God and man, and that prayer becomes incarnate in works of love just as the word became flesh.
As Pope Francis puts it with simple elegance: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
One of the reasons we get confused about the relationship between prayer and works is that there are many voices in our culture trying to pit these two against each other. For instance, many Catholics in our media-saturated culture get knocked off balance by the idea of eternal assurance of salvation.
There are certain passages in Scripture that get torqued by bad teachers into the notion that nothing one does can affect salvation: if you accept Jesus as savior, you are supposedly guaranteed heaven no matter what. As proof, some point to St. John, who said, “I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 Jn 5:13).
But, of course, John immediately follows this with, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly” (1 Jn 5:16–17).
In short, we must remain in Jesus to be saved, and that means we have to obey him: “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned” (Jn 15:6).
A Call to Act
While grace is certainly necessary for our salvation, our response to that grace is a crucial part of the story. The full-orbed Catholic faith has always followed Scripture in insisting that we are saved by God the Father through God the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us grace, which we receive by faith and live out in concrete acts of love.
Leave out any piece, and you are hearing something less than the fullness of the faith Jesus handed to us.
Indeed, Jesus’ preaching, again and again, bangs away at the fact that, as James puts it, “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26).
Jesus emphasizes this connection between faith and action when he declares, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). Additionally, when Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan, the conclusion is “Go and do likewise.”
His focus on the spiritual life portrays no interest in otherworldly navelgazing, but rather a deep interest in doing the practical work shown by Martha of Bethany: feeding hungry people, wiping runny noses, taking care of sick people, loving people in simple acts of service.
For Jesus, if you aren’t doing what the Father says, then you don’t believe what he says, and no amount of God talk or good thoughts will fix that.
That’s the point of this parable: “‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, “Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.” He said in reply, “I will not,” but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, “Yes, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?’ They answered, ‘The first’” (Mt 21:28–31).
This emphasis on deeds over mere words has birthed a Church full of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, global missionary enterprises, works of art, civilization, government, science, medicine, education, culture, and other wonders that have changed the world.
The Church teems with Marthas doing good works and the world is richer and more beautiful for it.
The Word is still made flesh through such servants every day.
This blog was adapted from Mark P. Shea’s article in the August 2017 issue of St. Anthony Messenger, “The Martha and Mary Balance.”