Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
1st Reading – Genesis 18: 1-10a
Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 15: 2-3, 3-4, 5
2nd Reading – Colossians 1: 24-28
Gospel – Luke 10: 38-42
The first and second readings at Mass are preludes or foreshowing for the gospel. In today's readings, we get a clear indication of the intent of this particular message. In Genesis, we see Abraham's generous, hospitable service rewarded with a long-awaited son. And, in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we hear of his endurance in ministry and the mystery of Christ. Both endeavors are quite different, but both are in relationship with other people and Jesus. That’s the key. That’s the secret to success in this Christian life. Jesus needs both active service and contemplation. We need both service and contemplation.
Biblical scholars do not agree with the meaning behind today’s gospel story. For us, reading it with modern-day views and opinions, it would be easy to put a feminist spin on the whole story. But we have to keep the perspective of both the characters in the story and Luke’s retelling. There are quite a few questions that are not answered.
Why was Jesus alone with these women to whom He was not related? (Forbidden.)
Where were the disciples?
Where was Lazarus? (He would have been expected to chaperone his sisters in the presence of an unrelated male.)
Why was Jesus teaching a woman? (Again, unheard of at that time.)
It is not difficult to imagine the scene. We’ve all been in social situations where there is active service and active socializing going on at the same time. Luke makes it very clear that Mary is in the teaching position; seated at Jesus’ feet. Martha is busy serving food and beverage, which would be the expectation. All is well until Martha complains. Things are fine until Martha stops and thinks about what Mary's doing instead of taking care of the tasks before her. Jesus didn't criticize her. He didn't call Martha out on her service. He merely defended Mary's choice to stop and listen.
(Note: I remember the difference between the sisters by thinking of Martha = Martha Stewart and Mary = Mary, Mother of God. If Martha Stewart were there, she would be cooking up a seven-course meal. If Mary, the Mother of God were there, she would be a Jesus’ feet.)
Remember, Jesus was not critical of Martha’s activities. Her work was vital. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem (and probably did have all of the disciples with him too, even though they are not mentioned here). There was food to prepare and serve and clean-up work to do, all important things. It was Martha that first welcomed Jesus into her home. In John, Martha is a leader, “believes without seeing” and called “beloved.” It was Martha that called Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of God.” (John 11:27) Martha was a good woman. She wasn’t wrong for the work she was doing. Her error came when she criticized her sister for not doing the same.
Mary, on the other hand, was contemplative. She is sitting at the feet of her Savior, learning from Him. She is not only learning from Him; she is learning about Him. Undoubtedly, Mary is learning what Jesus wants and needs from her. Mary is attentive to the needs of her guest. So often, we want to serve, but we want to serve our way. Mary is learning what Jesus needs from her at this moment. Mary’s attention is on Jesus. From this interaction, Mary will determine how best to serve Him; what action would be appropriate. Martha thinks she already knows what Jesus needs. Her attention is on the meal and the dishes.
We all have tendencies that are more similar to Mary or more similar to Martha. Think of the Thanksgiving feasts you've celebrated with your family. I will disclose right here that I am definitely a Martha. And I'm a Martha because I think it's easier. (I'm really lazy.) I'd rather be up cooking, cleaning, or doing something, anything to avoid conversation with particularly difficult family members. It’s not easy to surrender to the needs of another.
Mary’s choice is the lesson for all of us. We must be attentive to the needs of the one being served. We must be in relationship with God and our fellow man before we can provide the appropriate service required. God needs both Marys and Marthas in The Church. We are all called to surrender to these personal relationships.
Are you more of a Martha or a Mary? Are you more of an active person or a reflective person? Are you oriented to people, ideas or tasks? What effect does this have on your spiritual life?
Why do you think Jesus admonishes Martha who waits on him in service?
Why do you think Jesus contrasts Martha to Mary, who “waits upon” every word of the Lord?
What do you see as the real issues here?
What are the qualities of Mary you would like to imitate? What are the admirable qualities of Martha?
How can you avoid the pitfalls into which Martha falls?