Sixteenth Sunday of the Year July 18, 2010
Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42
The first and the third readings of today are set within the context of ancient near eastern customs of hospitality. These customs were very much wrapped up in the understanding of boundaries regulating the actions and activities of both men and women. In the second reading from the letter to the Colossians Paul speaks of his sufferings for Jesus as he serves the community of Christ while fulfilling his mission. The passage reveals the unique insight that the kind of generosity given in hospitality finds its fulfillment in suffering for others. Hence the central theme of today’s Mass in the specific context of what it means to those who follow Christ is said to be hospitality. In general, welcoming a guest was and still is an extremely important obligation of people living in the Middle Eastern regions. In the severe conditions of the desert, sometimes finding shelter can be a matter of life and death. Hospitality has been an important custom in several ethnic groups, in many parts of Asia, especially among Muslim peoples. In the Gospel we have Martha, Mary and Lazarus welcoming Jesus to their house and show their hospitality. However, the Lord indicates that such hospitality should be without any anxiety but filled with service and love.
The First Reading from the book of Genesis is part of the story about Abraham happily welcoming the heavenly visitors. The three unidentified men arrive in front of Abraham’s tent at the hottest time of the day. Immediately on seeing them, Abraham rushes forward to greet the strangers, bows before them, addresses them as “Lord” and, invites them to partake of his hospitality. He gives them water, washes their feet and let them rest in the shade while he offers to prepare a substantial meal for them to eat. What Abraham does is just a normal expression of hospitality to guests observed during his time. The visitors accept his invitation. Meanwhile Abraham rushes in to look for Sarah, his wife, and tells her to prepare a generous amount of food for these strangers, now their guests. He brings it to them and attends on them as their host. The heavenly visitors then ask for Sarah and they knew her name, and Abraham tells them that she is in the tent. As they take leave they promise to return in a year and by that time they foretell that Sarah will be the mother of a son. This is all the more surprising as Sarah, at this time, was far beyond the child bearing age. But this was the reward for their hospitality granted to them by God himself. It also indicates that for Abraham his faith in the divine word should be as apparent as his hospitality.
In the second reading Paul writes to the Colossian community about his own suffering and the joy with which he accepts them. His appeals to them follow patterns that were familiar in his time and world: his personal experience of suffering, his devotion to the Gentile mission, his hard work and especially his divine commission to preach God’s “mystery”. Paul lived his life in Christ. Because of his union with Christ, whatever he suffers can be called “Christ-Afflictions.” He willingly endures these for the benefit of the Church. He tells them that what was hidden in previous times is now revealed. It is the mystery of Christ in them, the Hope for Glory. God gave Paul the role of making known this mystery among the gentiles. Paul tells them that he has become a servant for their sake. His sense of service to God in the ministry of the gospel is his essential identity as a person. His work is not removed from real people in real places; he is not an ivory-tower in his learning, but a pastor who is intent on adapting the gospel message in ways that are useful in the lives of his readers. Paul indicates that Jesus wants his followers to continue his work by sharing in the afflictions, thus building up his body in every age. Christ is in them and they are in Christ.
In the Gospel passage, we see another example of the same kind of hospitality where Jesus is the guest. The house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus seems to have been a place where Jesus was always welcome and where he could find shelter when things were getting too hot in nearby Jerusalem. Luke indicates that Jesus was welcome there as he was a constant visitor and the presence of Lazarus is not mentioned. The incident described concerns the two sisters only. The story tells us that there were certain customs regulating the activities of men and women while showing hospitality to guests. Generally it was not permitted for a woman of the household to sit with the male visitor or engage him in conversation. They would just extend a greeting and stay discretely away when the male guest was present. Martha is upset that her sister has broken the boundary by sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to his words. This was equivalent to Mary assuming the role of the man in the house, certainly not an acceptable situation. Martha does her best by requesting Jesus to send her into the kitchen for the preparation of the food and also follow the custom. The shock comes when Jesus indicates that he is well aware of what Mary has done. Not only does it not bother him, he applauds her for it. He clearly says that she has chosen the better thing. The shock of Jesus’ response cannot be overstated. He tells Martha that both the things, namely service and listening are important and both of them manifest service and they are equally praiseworthy.
This story concerning Martha and Mary has often been used by spiritual writers to prove the superiority of the contemplative life over the active, pastoral form of life. That there is need and necessity for some members of Christ’s body, the church, to dedicate their lives solely and entirely to meditation and prayer needs no proof. Each member of the body can and must help the other members. Most Christians cannot give much time for prayer and contemplation of God. There are members who are set apart for this purpose. With the material needs provided for by other members they can act in the name of the whole body. It is God himself who has given them a special calling for the contemplative life. But the correct lesson which the story of Martha and Mary gives us is that we must not let the affairs of this life, innocent they might be in themselves, prevent us from attending primarily to the one affair that really matters, namely our future life. The emphasis is on Martha and not on Mary. In her anxiety to be an excellent host she spreads out all her energies to prepare an excellent meal. She had no time to listen to the master’s words of divine wisdom. Her work was excellent and praiseworthy yet she should not have excluded from listening to Jesus while doing the good work at the same time. The anxiety of a person may lead to overlook what is more important in life.
The Gospel tells us that Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening to him. That meant real listening, which is love in action and hard work. Most people do not listen well and often our listening is selective, with preset agenda in mind. Martha, on the other hand as a good host, was preoccupied with the task of providing hospitality. Jesus’ gentle, loving and inoffensive correction of Martha was directed at her being preoccupied to the point of distraction about many things. The problem was not that Martha was just working but that she was obsessed with working. Jesus spoke to Martha those often misunderstood words that apply to all of us. There is need of only one thing and Mary has chosen it. Jesus while speaking of the choice made by Martha and Mary did not refer to the two states of life contemplation and action and that contemplative life was better. Jesus in fact never wanted work to be separate from prayer. He wanted a balance between action and contemplation and both are necessary and important. Work and prayer have become a solid Christian tradition. St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises calls this Contemplation in Action.
The story of Martha and Mary preeminently speaks of hospitality and indicates of the presence of divinity in every guest. It happened that at that moment Mary attended to God by sitting still. At another moment she could have attended to God’s interests by helping with the work. What Jesus expected of the sisters that there should be balance and we must live a free anxiety free life. Jesus tells us that one thing that is necessary for us in our lives is love and we must show it both in action and contemplation. We may be bogged down in unimportant things while we forget to treat well our brothers and sisters.
The passage tells us that there is absolutely nothing that should separate us from sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his words. No custom, boundary or law should ever be allowed to come between the word of the Lord and us. The problem is that we let almost anything do this, especially if we can declare it some kind of work. Luke likes this story emphasizes his concern for the role of women in the ministry of Jesus and in the Church. In reality no custom or tradition, norm or rule or gender should keep us away from sitting at the Lords feet. Jesus points to another dimension in Christian living, which is also of prime importance and that is the direct personal relationship between a person and God. So it is Mary who has chosen the “better” part, which is to listen to Jesus, the Word of God. Only those who have listened careful to the Word of God know how to behave in the way that God wants. Out of that listening will flow the deep concern for the well-being of other people and indeed for the whole of creation itself. Here we have the example of Mary, Mother of Jesus who kept all things in her heart and contemplated over them.
A doctor was sharing his unique experience. A patient came to my office seeking a hip replacement. His former cardiologist believed that the man’s heart was too weak for him to survive a major operation. However, a new cardiologist had stated that while the man faced risks in undergoing surgery, his condition appeared stable. Therefore, he gave his permission to proceed. Our patient soon passed all preliminary tests. Still, on surgery day I could sense tension in the room among the nurses, anesthesiologist, and me. Our patient could likely sense this as well. He said, “Doctor, I know this is a busy time, but I would like to ask you for one moment to pray.” In my 20 years of medical practice, no patient had ever made such a request. All chatter ceased. With his heart monitor beeping in the background, our patient prayed for God to take care of him and all of us in the room who were trying to help him. He thanked God for the opportunity to get better, acknowledging the human limitations of the staff in trying to repair his fragile body. A sense of calm filled the room. The surgery was a success. In all my professional experience, I never have felt more strongly than on that day the presence of God sent through my patient to me.
Fr. Eugene Lobo S.J., Rome.