Sunday July 17
Genesis 18. 1 – 10
Second Reading: Colossians 1. 24 – 28.
Gospel: Luke 10: 38 – 42.
Jesus today is in the home of Martha and Mary. These two sisters—as often is the case with
siblings—are very different. After reflecting upon these two sisters, we have to choose which of
their stances to take up.
First, reflect on Martha. Martha is physically in the same house as Jesus. But when He speaks,
instead of listening to Jesus, Martha is doing her own thing. Martha is in the presence of Jesus,
but she is not present to Him.
Then we have to ask: what exactly is Martha doing instead of listening to Jesus? She would
certainly be the first to explain that she’s working for Jesus. Her work is all about Jesus. But
here’s the kicker: she’s not doing what Jesus wants her to do.
This sets before us one of the key distinctions of the Catholic spiritual life. This is the distinction
between sincerity and fidelity. Some persons believe that as long as they’re sincere in what they
do in life, then they’re being faithful to what God wants them to do. This is a misconception, and
this misconception can lead to many dead-ends in the spiritual life. Sincerity may be a virtue, but
it is not a measure of fidelity.
Today’s first reading describes how Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to strangers was rewarded
by God. This is the story of Abraham and Sarah and their offering of hospitality to three
strangers. Both the ancient Jews and the early Christians believed that the best way to show their
dedication to God was to be dedicated to hospitality. Three visitors appeared unexpectedly before
Abraham’s tent. Abraham was wealthy enough to play the very generous host with the best of his
contemporaries, and he was spiritually keen, sensing that his visitors were disguised angels. He
and his wife, Sarah promptly started making preparations for a lavish meal with which to refresh
their guests. Their generous hospitality was even more generously rewarded. God, speaking
through the guests, promised that the aged couple would have a son within a year! The birth
announcement was a sign of the fulfillment of God’s promises of progeny, prosperity, and
property, a homeland for Abraham. If we open our hearts and our homes to God, the impossible
can happen – God’s presence can overturn things. For the Israelites, this story was a sign of how
God’s plan of salvation would be carried out through them, and they waited for the promised
Messiah from the offspring of Abraham and Sarah. Because of his exemplary hospitality,
Abraham has been featured in rabbinic stories as the founder of inns for travelers and the
inventor and teacher of grace after meals.
In the second reading, Paul presents his credentials to the Colossians. Saint Paul had suffered
many hardships in preaching the Good News brought by Jesus, the same Messiah whom he had
encountered on the way to Damascus. He reported that he had not only been invited to join the
suffering ministry of the risen Jesus but had also been given the insight that he was actually
suffering “on behalf of His body, which is the Church.” Paul could honestly look even at the
Gentiles and state that he saw “Christ in you, the hope for glory.” Paul was speaking figuratively
when he stated that he filled up what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ (v. 24). Obviously,
the saving sacrifice of Jesus was absolute and complete. Therefore, Paul’s statement should be
understood as a metaphorical expression of the author’s incredible closeness to Christ as a
member of His Mystical Body, the Church, a closeness which enabled him to make Jesus’
suffering his own. What was lacking was not the atoning power of the cross but its manifestation
in the Church as a present reality. Paul also believed that he had been commissioned by God to
minister to the Church, as the revealer of the mystery of salvation and the preacher of the word in
its fullness. Paul invites 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.
In today’s Gospel passage, Mary is in the presence of Jesus, and is also present to Jesus. Mary
shows us that the yardstick that measures our fidelity is the spiritual virtue of listening. Mary
listens to Jesus. But what did Jesus say to her? It’s telling that St. Luke the Evangelist does not
reveal to us what Jesus said to her. What Jesus said was for Mary alone. But that Mary listened
is for all of us to imitate to listen, so that we might faithfully obey God.
Mary “seated herself at the Lord’s feet and listened to his words.” There are at least two points
that the evangelist makes in this sentence. First: Mary was seated, not standing for service, like
a waiter who takes your order. Whatever Jesus said to her, it was not marching orders, but
something so deep that Mary had to take it “sitting down”, to ponder it thoroughly.
Second: there was no dialogue between the two. It was not two-way communication. The
words flowed in only one direction: from Jesus, to Mary. And Mary listened. Mary listened to
Jesus’ words: this is what Jesus calls “the better part”. Today’s Gospel reading not only makes
a distinction between prayer and action, calling prayer the “better part”. It makes a distinction
about two different types of prayer: a distinction between speaking to God and listening to Him.
Listening is the “better part” and the foundational part of prayer.
Now, what do we get when we put these two portraits of Martha and Mary together, and look at
them side by side? How do the two relate to each other? The saints and doctors of the Church
who have reflected on this passage have taken many lessons from this scene.
Some of the saints point out how Martha is a symbol of good works, and Mary is a symbol of
prayer. From this perspective, the primary lesson of the passage is that prayer is “the better
part”. Prayer is better than good works. But that’s not to say that good works are bad.
It’s not that works are bad, and prayer is good. We are not like those among our separated
brethren in Christ who believe that salvation is about faith alone apart from works. Rather, it’s
that works are good, while prayer is better. From this, we see the reason why Martha is anxious
and worried: not because she’s doing something bad. Martha is anxious and worried because she
did not put prayer first. Her works do not flow from her prayer. In your own daily life, when
you put prayer first, and base decisions upon prayer, then this becomes the foundation of our
fidelity to God. That doesn’t mean that we’ll always be correct in hearing God’s voice in our
prayer. But we can be sure that we’re on the right path, and that’s no small thing.
Gospel story has been interpreted to mean that the quiet life of contemplation and prayer led by
monks and nuns and personified in Mary, is superior to a busy life of activity and action,
personified in Martha. Jesus did not intend to belittle Martha and her activity, but rather to show
that hearing the word of God is the foundation of all action, and that the word of God must
permeate all other concerns and Martha was distracted by her hospitality. The highest priority
must be given to listening to the word. Prayer and actions must be continuous, complementary,
and mutually dependent. Prayer without action is sterile, and action without prayer is empty. We
are expected to be “contemplatives in action” because only those who listen carefully to the
Word of God know how to behave in the way that God wants, when they show deep concern for
the well-being of other people. That is why Jesus reminds Martha that proper service for him is
attention to his instruction, not just an elaborate provision for his physical needs. Mary shows her
love for the Lord by listening to him. Jesus in fact, needed Mary and Martha to keep him
company and to listen to him because he was preparing to face the cross. Mary may be a
representative of discipleship and Martha of hospitality and the ideal to combine both. By this
episode, Jesus teaches his disciples that those who minister among God’s people must be actively
listening to his words thus becoming hospitable hosts and hostesses, welcoming into their hearts
and attending to the good news of salvation. At every Mass, we are offered the very hospitality of
Jesus at the table of the Eucharist to become both Mary and Martha. Both Mary and Martha are
teaching would-be disciples that their following of Jesus and their service in his name will
require frequent spiritual refueling by prayer, silence, and communion with God. Otherwise,
service, instead of being a loving response to the invitation of God, can become a crushing
responsibility, a burden. In other words, listening to the Lord and resting in his presence is more
important that busying oneself with the duties or routines of daily life. Mary chose to listen to the
Lord; Martha chose (as her first priority) to work in the kitchen. Both are necessary, but when the
Lord is present, our own agenda must be put aside to hear what the Lord wishes to teach us.