Dominica XVI per Annum C
21 July 2019
In the first reading we have an account of one of the most famous theophanies in the Old Testament, a revelation of God Himself that we can say foreshadows a later more developed understanding of God as Trinity since, as the reading says, the Lord appeared but Abraham saw three figures. This theophany has inspired many ancient icons that depict God’s revealing of Himself by showing three figures who are dining with Abraham. Abraham welcomed and quickly gave focused hospitality to the Lord God, desiring to have the Lord stay with him and providing a meal to the mysterious figures. In the Gospel account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and her sister, Mary, it would seem that welcome and hospitality are also a clear theme.
I bet that if we could ask people what types of things a parish ought to do, what kinds of things help it to thrive, I bet a significant number of responses would indicate that welcoming and hospitality are key indicators of a parish climate and key things a parish ought to do well. So common is this expectation that the impression of not being welcoming would be an indictment of a parish. But is a generic or uncritical welcome and hospitality really being proposed as a lesson from the Gospel selection today?
What characteristics can we witness about Martha in the Gospel? (1) A first characteristic, she has a welcoming attitude. She welcomed Jesus. The Gospel tells us that quite directly and plainly. (2) A second characteristic, Martha was quick to be busy about being an excellent hostess and she has a servant’s heart. “Burdened with much serving,” the Gospel said. (3) And a third characteristic, Martha knows the value of a team, she is a delegator who brings others into her work. In speaking to Jesus about her sister, Martha says, “Tell her to help me.” She is the type of person who, if you had her on your parish hospitality committee, you’d be inclined to think “We have a great person in that role, a real go-getter.” But the Lord does not accept Martha’s method and gives a rebuke to her notion that Mary should do as she does.
If you have a more active, jump into action, personality this Gospel might leave you disappointed and discouraged because for as much as we easily assume that welcome and hospitality are primary virtues, the Lord says Martha isn’t quite the one to imitate. But if you are more active by nature and quick to jump into service, don’t despair. Jesus in no way denigrates being attentive to the aspects of welcome and hospitality. Rather, he makes a positive comparison. The rebuke of Martha is not because her activity is bad. Rather, it is the way in which she does it that the Lord does not entirely support. It is rather that something else is better, the better part… simply being attentive and focused on the presence of Jesus and being with him as his disciple. The Gospel makes the clear point that what Martha is busy doing is a burden. Other translations say, she was distracted with much serving. In other words, the way she goes about this work is pulling her away from something else. In this case, it is pulling her away from Someone, from being at peace by simply being in Jesus’ presence. It’s as if she has to prove something to feel good about having Jesus near her and being at rest. Furthermore, the Gospel goes on to tell us more about Martha, that her activity is corrupted with anxiety and worry. It is this precise way of doing what she is doing that Jesus rejects. Mary has chosen the better part of simply being focused and in peace in Jesus’ presence. What Jesus is doing here is to emphasize the proper order of simply being with him, in relationship, in intimacy. He is making a finer point: Activity, like welcoming and hospitality, if done in a distracted, anxious way, gets corrupted. And to the tendency to let such work eclipse a proper focus on Jesus, well, then, Mary has chosen the better part. It is this better part that each disciple must keep in first place.
What can we learn? Where do our efforts as individual disciples and as a parish begin? Does it begin with Jesus, with simply being with him? If not, we have failed to start with the better part, with the most important focus. How much attention do we give that? Or like Martha, do we get things out of order, keeping ourselves busy and anxious, and upset that we are burdened and overworked? Do we start to feel resentment because we want to pull others into our load to help us carry it? What attitude ought we to have, and what things ought we to do, to show that we adopt the posture of Mary in today’s Gospel, that posture of sitting at the feet, which in ancient culture was a sign of being a disciple gathered near the Master?
I suggest it is Abraham who shows us that Martha’s work can be done with a better focus. He too quickly jumps into action, but notice his desire is that the Lord stay with him. He says, “…if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant.” And Abraham stays with the Lord God while the mysterious figures dine. The prime example of the “better part” for us in our time is worship at Holy Mass, and a commitment to extend our time with the Lord by participation in our adoration program. I think even the physical layout of our chapel, with the Lord’s Real Presence elevated on top of the Tabernacle, invites us to a posture like Mary’s, our kneeling or sitting in the pews being sort of like a place at the Lord’s feet. By keeping this proper order of the “better part” we adopt the simple focused desire to be in the Lord’s presence. But the opportunity for a Mary-like focus on the “better part” extends out into our daily home life too, even when we are not here at church. Our prayer, our study of the faith and its saving doctrine, discussing the faith with others, teaching it to children, which is a sacred trust parents have in the home, all of this is a way we live the “better part”.
Our take away is that before we even get to activity, to the tasks of welcome and hospitality, before we jump into action, so easy to do in our frenzied pace of life, each disciple needs to give focused welcome to being with Jesus in the intimate life of prayer that should mark a disciple. Like Martha we each have burdens, anxieties, and worries. Is it any surprise that so often when God or His messenger appears to someone in the Bible the first message God speaks is “Be not afraid?” Jesus’ gift of his presence and our reciprocal gift of being present to him resolves the burdens we carry much more so than our distracted activity. By being in the Lord’s presence and by studying him and his teachings may we find a healing of our worries and anxieties such that we experience the reward of choosing the better part which we pray will not be taken from us in this life or in the life to come!