16th Ordinary Sunday (Year C)
First Reading: Genesis 18:1-10a Second Reading: Colossians 1:24-28 Gospel Reading: Luke 10:38-42
INTRODUCTION: A Call to Christian Discipleship.
Today is the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time and we further continue to reflect upon the theme of Christian discipleship with the points given by the Scripture Readings of today.
Now, hospitality, a welcoming attitude and a great virtue in a disciple, is the theme which ties together the First Reading from the Book of Genesis and the Gospel Reading from St. Luke, but it is not immediately discernible in the Second Reading of today from St. Paul's letter to the Colossians.
But undeniably, St. Paul is a true disciple of Christ, whose discipleship consists in accepting the supremacy of Christ and in giving himself completely to the task of proclaiming the word to its fulness. And in so doing, he is willing to take the sufferings and hardships in his own flesh, so as to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church. Furthermore, he invites all the believers to open their hearts and minds to 'welcome' the mystery of Christ. Those who consent, by faith, to become 'hosts' of the mystery are thereby challenged to cultivate that quality of hospitality that welcomes all others in Christ.
So today, we all are called to Christian discipleship through our dedication, action and contemplation.
“My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.”
In the First Reading of today from the Book of Genesis we hear about the generous hospitality of Abraham which really sets the scene for the Gospel passage. The three unidentified men arrive before Abraham’s tent at the hottest time of the day. Immediately on seeing them, Abraham rushes forward to greet the complete strangers, bows to the ground before them, addresses them as “Lord” and, not only invites, but begs them to partake of his hospitality - “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.” He then gives them some water to wash their dust covered feet and lets them rest in the shade as they must be tired after their journeying in the merciless sun. Meanwhile Abraham rushes in to look for Sarah, his wife, and tells her to prepare a generous amount of food for their guests. He gives them bread, choice beef specially slaughtered for them, cream and milk. And while the strangers eat, Abraham attends them as their host.
What Abraham did here was really nothing special. Any other person in that part of the world would do the same. The visitors accepted what they were offered and in response they turned his humility & hospitality into a blessing. For the three were God's emissaries and one of whom told Abraham that God would fulfill His promise of giving him a descendant the following year. Now, it is only in this spirit of reliance and humility that we can go on to accept that most difficult of truths.
Today’s story of Abraham’s hospitality reminds us that God is present in every guest. We can reverence his presence by listening to one another. We might be surprised at times by what we hear!
“A woman whose name was Martha welcomed Jesus.”
In the Gospel Reading of today from St. Luke, we see another example of the same kind of hospitality; but the story is so familiar to us that it’s easy to miss how extraordinary it is!
One of the difficulties of the passage is the lack of information. It is as if we were looking in through the keyhole and getting a partial picture of what is going on. Jesus is traveling with his disciples; he arrives at a village, where “a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.” Her sister Mary sat, 'as a disciple,' at the feet of Jesus leaving Martha to do all the work. This is all we have to work on. We could suggest that it is likely Martha is so busy because the disciples are also there along with Jesus, but although this is plausible we are not told that this is the case. We are given a partial view, yet we look for a definitive answer.
Secondly, it is obvious that Jesus is going against all the cultural conventions of his day. It is scandalous that he is a guest at the home of two unmarried women who are not related to him - unmarried men didn’t do that. Are we to suppose then, that Jesus did not enter the house alone, or perhaps that there were other males present who belonged to the household? From St. John's Gospels we know that Mary and Martha lived in Bethany and had a brother – Lazarus – who becomes important later in Jesus’ life, and that Jesus thought very highly of him, even crying when he died. Could Lazarus have been present on this occasion acting as a chaperone to the two women? In any case, the omission of this information is quite remarkable. It is also interesting to note that Martha is the one who invites and welcomes Jesus into the house and Jesus allows her, a woman, to serve him - notice that Abraham served the guests in today’s First Reading. Also, Jesus is teaching Mary, a woman; in Jesus’ day, only men were disciples. This shows that Jesus is radically pro-woman!
Now, we know that the Gospel of St. Luke is often referred to as the 'Gospel of Women,' as St. Luke gives a very special place to women and holds them in a more emancipated position. Today, he vividly presents the picture of two female protagonists: Martha and Mary. Martha welcomes the Lord and serves him. As a pious Jew she receives the Lord as a peaceful sojourner. To receive a peaceful sojourner, like Sarah and Abraham received the three messengers, is to receive the blessing of God. To receive God’s blessing is to receive God. Martha is doing exactly what she’s supposed to do. She receives the Lord, waits on him, and serves him.
Again, while the circumstances of this event are unconventional, so too is its message. Poor Martha is very busy about all the tasks of hospitality, which is a very important virtue. But is her generosity motivated by her pride in being the provider? Her indignation towards her sister certainly takes the edge off the atmosphere of welcome. However, Jesus gently reminds her that her anxiety, her distress, has distracted her from what’s really important in hospitality - listening to her guest. Here, is Martha being rebuked by Jesus for trying to do too many trivial things? Or is Martha rebuking Jesus for indulging Mary?
“Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Receiving Christ requires, first and foremost, hearing him and having the soul of a disciple. The Christian is not forced to choose between acting and contemplating. The point is rather that he must first of all listen and receive Christ with interior peace and simplicity. Any reproach of Martha is for her anxiety, not for her zealous activity in receiving Jesus. One thing is necessary. What is this one thing? “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”
A story is told of a father who had a little daughter that he dearly loved. They were great friends – the father and the daughter – and were always together. But there seemed to come an estrangement on the child's part. The father could not get her company as formerly. She seemed to shun him. If he wanted her to walk with him, she had something else to do. The father was grieved and could not understand what the trouble was.
Then his birthday came and in the morning his daughter came to his room, her face radiant with love, and handed him a present. Opening the parcel he found a pair of exquisitely worked slippers. The father said, “My child, it was very good of you to BUY me such lovely slippers.” “O father,” she said, “I did not buy them. I MADE them for you.”
Looking at her he said, “I think I understand now what long had been a mystery to me. Is this what you had been doing the last three months?” “Yes,” she said, “but how did you know how long I had been at work on them?” He said, “Because for three months I have missed your company and your love. I badly wanted you with me, but you have been too busy. These are beautiful slippers, but next time BUY your present and let me have YOU all those days. I would rather have my child herself than anything she could make for me.”
Now, today’s gospel is the story of two sisters, Martha who is busy with the work of the Lord, and Mary who is more interested in knowing the Lord of the work. For Martha service comes first, for Mary relationship comes first. Shall we say that Mary has chosen the good because she is there contemplating the words that come forth from the mouth of the Lord? Or shall we say that Martha is the wise woman who wants the Lord to help her teach her sister that the practicalities of life must be met as well? It is not that Martha does wrong in serving her guest, nor that Mary is perfectly justified in leaving her sister to do all the work. Rather, it is the attitude towards their roles in respect of Jesus that causes the scene between the three of them. Everything given to Jesus at dinner, food, drink, even Mary's attention, is all a gift of God, the God who has come to their table.
Choice is at the heart of discipleship and freedom. Given two things – being active and being contemplative – and one has to chose between them, is always a challenge. Jesus says the second is the better choice. Today too many of us think that the active life is the better choice. Please note that Jesus is not saying that we don’t do things. Both are good. One is better. So it is that Mary has chosen the “better” part, which is to listen to Jesus, the Word of God. Only those who have listened carefully to the Word of God know how to behave in the way that God wants.
On the lighter side - a monk asked his superior, “Can I work while I pray?” “No,” answered the superior. The other monk asked, “Can I pray while I work?” “Yes, you may.”
CONCLUSION: Martha vs Mary – A Balanced Life.
There have been many interpretations of this story of Martha and Mary over the years. It is obviously a story about contrasts between the doer and the listener. In our day-to-day life, action and contemplation, work and prayer should not be looked at as opposites but as complementary. Just as prayer should lead to action under God's inspiration, work should bring us back to prayer - to discover before God whether we are doing His will or just advancing our pet interests, sometimes, even at the expense of ourselves or of others. As much as we need to work, we also need to pray - to be alone with God - in order to make our work, our life, meaningful. In short, we should strive to arrive at a balance between work and prayer, action and contemplation in order to make work become meaningful and grace-filled.
The point of the story of Jesus with Martha and Mary is not to invite us to choose between being a Martha or a Mary. The true disciple needs to be both Martha and Mary. Virtue stands in the middle. The Christian disciple is one who acts and listens. He is a contemplative in action. There is a Martha and Mary in each of us. Both are expressions of love. The point of the story is to challenge our priorities so that we come to see that fellowship with the Lord, being with the Lord and hearing his word, should always precede the work we do for the Lord. Do we have a program of daily fellowship with the Lord? Many people fulfill this by assisting daily in the Eucharist where they can also hear the word of God. Others schedule a holy hour or quiet time when they can pray and read the word of God. Whatever way we fulfill this need, today’s gospel invites all Christians first to be a Mary who sits with devotion at the Lord’s feet listening his word, and then also to be a Martha who throws herself with energy into the business of serving the Lord.
But there is also a wider lesson in the story. Always wanting to be busy about serving and becoming anxious about it are traps for the disciple. There is real danger that we get so busy in striving to be active Christians, so absorbed in our tasks and duties, that Christ himself will be less loved. He may say to us, 'I like your works, your toils, your service – but I miss your love you gave me first.' In order for our serving to have its greatest benefit, we must first take time just to be with the Lord in prayer - listening to whatever he may have to say to us. Our effort to listen first keeps our service focused on sharing the Lord’s love in all we do. And this is the Good News of today.