SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – Gen 18: 1-10 Col 1:24-28 Lk 10:38-42
One Thing Only Is Required in Life
Thinkers and Doers; Divided?; The Duties of Hospitality; What to Remember in Times of Worry.
The ancient Greek said that all human temperaments depended on which of the four elements – fire, earth, air, or water – of which they thought the universe was made was dominant in a person. Modern psychological theories are more detailed and sophisticated. They look to whether you are, for example, creative, inspirational, an achiever, an objective thinker, emotional, a perfectionist, or going in many other directions.
Today’s Gospel shows two temperaments that were completely different form each other – Martha and Mary. They were both close to Jesus. Bethany, the village where they lived, was just a few miles from Jerusalem. Jesus was on his way through to Jerusalem, where he was going in order to die. Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary was characterized by graciousness, and mutual respect. That a woman could be mistress of a house and invite a man into her home would be almost inconceivable in the patriarchal society of first-century Palestine. Nevertheless, Jesus treated the sisters as two responsible persons who could run their own lives.
Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening to him (v. 39). That meant real listening, which is love in action and is hard work. Most people don’t listen well. Even though we may feel in our social relationships that we are listening very hard, what we are often doing is listening selectively, with a preset agenda in mind, wondering how we can end the conversation as quickly as possible or redirect it in ways satisfactory to us. Even in marriage, where listening as love in action is most appropriate, couples often don’t truly listen to each other.
Jesus didn’t think it unbecoming to converse with a woman like this, although all other rabbis of that time would. Jesus, rejecting the Talmudic view that it was “better to burn the Torah than to teach it to woman,” welcomed her. And, challenging the then –current notion that a woman was unable to learn, he taught her.
Martha welcomed Jesus, possibly because her temperament was dominant over her sister Mary’s, and she was probably also the elder of the two. It was therefore she who undertook the duties of hospitality. Showing a familiarity which suggests that she had known Jesus foe a long time, she complained to him about being left alone in the kitchen (v. 40). Why, then, didn’t Jesus simply go into the kitchen, where he could be with both Martha and Mary, and thus settle the difficult? Because, for one thing, the idea of a house as a home as we know it didn’t take shape until much closer to our own time. The interior design of a house at the time of Jesus would allow for only a very small kitchen. Such attributes in the home as ease, comfort, and leisure as we know them hadn’t yet developed.
Martha’s eagerness to abide by the laws of generous Middle Eastern hospitality was turning into criticism. She was giving the wrong kind of hospitality; Jesus didn’t want what she was offering. Jesus, with the press of the crowds from which he had come and to which he was going to have to return, with the tensions of his confrontations, and with the suffering that was before him, wanted most of all an oasis of peace and quiet. When we are trying to be hospitable, we shouldn’t try to do it in our way. We should try to think of what the recipients of our hospitality need and want. Mary understood this, and Martha didn’t. Jesus’ gentle, loving, and inoffensive correction of Martha (v. 41) was directed at her being preoccupied to the point of distraction about many things. The problem was not that Martha was working, but that she was obsessed with working.
One’s home has been called the setting in which both the most ardent ties of love are formed and at the same time the deepest hatred simmers. The Scripture stories of Vain and Abel and of Esau and Jacob, as well as of Martha and Mary, show that since ancient times family rifts are common. As siblings grow, feelings are often hidden, but old pattern don’t always stay buried and can surface during tense moments.
Jesus then spoke to Martha those often-misunderstood words that apply to all of us. There is need of only one thing (v. 42). What is that one thing? Many have thought that Jesus was contrasting Martha with Mary, that Martha had missed out completely, that there is a conflict between listening and doing, that there are two opposing states of life – contemplation and work – and somehow the contemplative life is better.
Work isn’t separable from contemplation. Work is whatever we expend our energy on for accomplishing or achieving something. Work in this sense isn’t what we do for a living, but what we do with our living. Parents and teachers both work at the upbringing of Children, but only teachers receive paycheques for it. The housework of homework, and teamwork of children are real work, though the payoff is not in cash. The opposite of work is not leisure or play or having fun, but idleness – not investing ourselves in anything.
So we have to look at Martha and Mary together. It just happened that at this particular moment Mary attended to God by sitting still; at another time, perhaps even in the next moment, Mary could have attended to God’s interests while helping with the work. All Christians must balance both action and contemplation. Thinking without doing produces unrealistic types who have their feet firmly planted in midair. Doing without thinking produces people who efficiently speed through life without enough regard to the right direction.
The true follower of Jesus is one who, like Mary – and like Jesus himself – can go aside at times from the clutter of the less important details of life to be alone with the Father, and who, like Martha – and together have remained a good Christian tradition. The Benedictines encapsulate it in their inscription, Ora et labora: “Pray and work.” This requires us to face many difficulties in prayer, some unique to our day – erroneous notions of prayer, the mentality of our world, seeming failure in prayer, distraction, dryness, lukewarm faith, and selfish laxity, among others (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2726-2733).
The story of Martha and Mary also preeminently entails hospitality. In Judeo – Christian belief, there is no finer work. One of the great adages in the Christian tradition is, Venit hospes, venit Christus: “When a guest comes, Christ comes.” This notion characterized early America. It was a rare day then when some stranger didn’t sit at the family table. George Washington recorded that his family didn’t once sit down to dinner alone for twenty years.
Many folktales tell of gods and of kings who travel in disguise and who reward people who show them hospitality. Today’s reading from Genesis shows hospitality as it was perceived by Abraham, our father in faith. God dropped in on Abraham unannounced and anonymously through His messengers, and Abraham fusses as much as Martha about the details of entertaining. In fact, the whole scene prepares us for the visit of Jesus to the home of Martha and Mary.
So strongly did Abraham conceive the duty of hospitality that, even though he didn’t know the identity of the three visiting strangers, he actually ran from the entrance of his tent to greet them (v. 2), bowed to the ground before them, and addressed as “Sir” the leader of the group (v. 3). This was in a tradition of hospitality which demanded that one take strangers into one’s home, furnish them with a meal and a bed for a night, and provide them protection. Abraham’s three messengers from God are a frequent subject of Eastern holy pictures, where the messengers are often depicted with halos.
Abraham had water brought to wash their feet and suggested that they rest in the shade of his tree (v. 4). Then he spoke of bringing them a little food (v. 5). He told his wife Sarah – who as a woman was out of sight, as was then the custom in contradistinction to Martha and Mary with Jesus – to prepare a half bushel of fine flour (v. 6) – the very best. They were also to be fed from a steer (v. 7) and provided with yogurt and milk (v. 8). The food proved to be quiet a meal, even by modern standards. Abraham and Sarah would be eating leftovers for a long time!
It was only when Abraham heard the leading visitor promise a miraculous birth of a son to his aged wife Sarah (v. 10) that he realized that somehow this was the Lord. But Abraham had already received that promise several times. The assurance is that hospitality is rewarded.
Today’s portion of the glorious letter to the Colossians reveals the special and unique insight that the kind of generosity given in hospitality finds its heroic fulfillment in suffering for others. But how can the letter’s author claim that he was completing what is lacking in Christ’s suffering (v. 24)? Was Jesus’ sacrifice somehow insufficient? No, but by God’s own will the redeemer’s work of salvation is not yet complete. Jesus wants his followers to continue his work by sharing in his afflictions, thus building up his body in every age. We need to realize that we can do something for the salvation of the entire world. That is at the root of the communion of saints.
It is Jesus who teaches today’s lessons- that the one thing necessary in our lives is love, that we show it in both action and contemplation, that it expresses itself preeminently in outgoing hospitality. Throughout, little things mean a lot. Whereas a religious spectacle in a huge cathedral may be an empty show, a private cup of water to a needy person may mean salvation. But let us not get so bogged down in unimportant details that we forget to treat each other as brothers and sisters, and let us use our insights into our particular psychological temperament to grow into Jesus.