"To What Lengths". On September 2, 2013 at the age of 64, Diana Nyad completed a roughly 110 - mile swim from Cuba to Florida. Fighting off jellyfish and chilly waters, not to mention the danger of getting attacked by fierce sharks, Diana swam for more than 48 hours to reach her goal, which she had previously attempted four times and failed. She is now the first person to officially complete the swim without the help of a shark cage. For me, this is a tremendous physical feat and a display of relentless will power. She definitely went to great lengths to achieve her dream. Interestingly, the Scriptural readings for this Sunday speak similarly about the determination of God, who goes to great lengths to show mercy and to find even one lost individual.
This Sunday and its Scripture readings come as a lot of us are get things underway again as fall arrives. Labor Day has passed. The school year has begun. And the days of summer have flown by too quickly - as they always seem to do.
Every culture has its proverbs-pithy sayings that give wisdom about how to live well. The readings from both Sirach and the gospel pass on proverbial wisdom about the virtue of humility. This is earthy wisdom. The word humility comes from the Latin word humilis, which means literally "on the ground," deriving from humus, "earth." So when we are advised to humble ourselves, it is an invitation to be "grounded," to be attentive to our connectedness with Earth. This entails consciousness of our interconnectedness with all persons and all Earth's creatures and with God. As Ben Sira, who penned the book of Sirach, avers, in humbling oneself one finds favor with God. In other words, through humility we gain proper consciousness of our place in relation to God.
"Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!" At first glance, this well-known saying from the Book of Ecclesiastes sounds very pessimistic. Some might say that the rest of that biblical book gets even worse. However, such an evaluation is a misreading of a very sobering yet genuine perspective on life's pursuits, but not on life itself. This phrase from the ancient sage, the responsorial psalm for today, and the story in the gospel underscore what we all know so well from experience, namely, that everything and everyone is 'here today and gone tomorrow.' Because of this fact, the author of Ecclesiastes insists that the meaning of life cannot be found in possessions that do not last.
Some years ago a friend's wife was ill and needed surgery. My friend was terrified, as his wife of thirty years had never been sick. He began bargaining with God. He promised God that if she came through the surgery and recovered, he would give up cigarettes. He quit cold turkey right then and there. She recovered quickly after the surgery and returned to excellent health. In the gospel today Jesus tells a parable, followed by several sayings, to convey how extraordinarily loving and gracious God is and how greatly God wants to shower us with what is good. We don't have to try to convince God to be generous toward us-that is the very thing God wants to do!
Martha always gets a bad rap. In traditional interpretations of her story she is said to be too preoccupied or anxious about the details of hospitality to attend well to her guest. Her sister, by contrast, sits in rapt attention at Jesus' feet, drinking in his every word. When Jesus declares that it is Mary who has "chosen the better part," the message we are supposed to take away, according to many commentators, is that contemplation rather than active service is the harder but better choice, and that no one can minister without first sitting and learning at Jesus' feet. While finding the right balance between contemplation and action is a perennial challenge for most Christians, that may not actually be the question that today's gospel addresses. There are many tensions in the story left unanswered by the traditional interpretation.