SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (2022)
What might appear to be a confusing array of readings, is fundamentally all about hospitality. The anecdotal passage from the book of Genesis is as much about the origins of Sarah’s first (and miraculous, given her age) child, as it is about the unseen and unexpected benefits of hospitality. Abraham is portrayed as the friendliest man in the Middle East (or maybe he is just so desperate for male companionship), and he approaches three strangers and convinces them to take time out from their journey (they are on their way to Sodom on a mission from God) to have something to eat. Abraham’s feast is overwhelmingly lavish. He tells his wife to make rolls out of flour that would weigh sixty pounds (without water), and orders a servant to prepare a choice steer, something weighing in the vicinity of 1,200 pounds – there were, no doubt, leftovers!
This is one of those places, particularly in the Old Testament, that we are not meant to be side tracked by the details. Abraham is generous, and at this point in the story he appears to be unaware that he is entertaining the Lord, accompanied by two angels. His generosity is rewarded by he and Sarah being told that when one of the men returns next year around the same time, “Sarah will have a son.” Thus begins the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that “he is to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth are to find blessing in him” (18:17).
Coupled with our gospel from Luke, and isolated from the remainder of chapter 18 in Genesis which speaks of the disaster of Sodom & Gomorrah, the first reading is about anonymous generosity. Abraham does not know at this time that among the three men is the very God he worships, something he does not learn until later in the chapter.
In the gospel, Jesus appears to be comfortable in the home of Martha and Mary. Indeed, it appears that He has been there often enough for Mary to recognize His powerful preaching and teaching skills, for she was content to just sit at His feet and listen. There is something humorously understandable about Martha feeling “burdened with much serving,” telling her sister Mary to “help me”! Remember, it is unlikely that Jesus was alone, traveling as He was accustomed to travel with a band of disciples/apostles. Just think of the details of having thirteen or more people enter your home.
Generosity requires a giver and a receiver, but in this case the Lord Jesus is giving to both Martha and Mary, and perhaps also to the disciples seated there. Although Martha seems to be the only one saddled with the messier details of hospitality, she hasn’t been asked as Sarah was to make a sixty-pound loaf of bread. When Martha complains to Jesus, He says simply, with no apparent judgment, “you are anxious and worried about many things…. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Indeed, Jesus is highlighting the important components in any person’s spiritual life – the active and the contemplative. This glimpse of the uniquely Lukan story of a visit by Jesus should not lead us to believe that all Mary ever did was worm her way out of doing the serving or the dishes. Nor should we think that Martha never took time to contemplate the words of her good friend Jesus! If Mary’s part is “better,” it is because it is what informs, upholds, and sustains the less contemplative moments when we are to actively live out the gospel. Even the most contemplative of religious communities are called upon to be pleasantly active even within the walls of the cloister. Even though it appears in the story that Martha is the only one serving, I would like to think that the disciples present helped pass things or clear the table, even though customarily in Jesus’ time it was not thought to be the responsibility of a man. Perhaps there is a hint here of just how novel Jesus’ teaching was.
No one should come out of our four-verse gospel looking bad. Martha shouldn’t be branded as a chronically complaining sister, and Mary should not be viewed as the person who never lifts a finger to help (we all know them). The gospel highlights the need for our good works to be grounded in the teachings of Jesus, for as much good as we might do in the time allotted to us, no time is better spent than learning from the Master Himself what the good news practically means. Indeed, last weekend’s proclaiming of the parable of the Good Samaritan, is the perfect example.