16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. Luke 10: 38-42.
AIM: To show that service of others must be rooted in listening to God=s word.
It seems terribly unfair, doesn=t it? Even a child can see that it is not right to sit making pleasant conversation with a guest while leaving your sister all alone in the kitchen. How can we make sense of the story? Many years go I attended Mass at a Catholic Church in
, on a Sunday when this was the
gospel reading. After reading it, the
priest said: ABrethren, this gospel presents a
difficulty for a preacher who must prepare a wee talk.@ Unfortunately we found out in the
next ten minutes that it was a difficulty for which he had not even the ghost
of a solution. I’ll try to do better. Edinburgh
Before tackling the difficulty it is worth noting that this is one of many instances in the gospels which show Jesus rejecting the second-class status of women in his society. According to the social laws of the day, only men were supposed to sit at the feet of a religious teacher and listen to his teaching. Women were supposed to stay out of sight and appear only to wait on the men. The story shows Jesus clearly rejecting this double standard. The seeming injustice remains, however; and with it the question, how can we make sense of the story?
We can never make sense of it if we read it as a lesson in the duties of hospitality. Nor can we make sense of the story apart from the context. It immediately follows Jesus= parable of the good Samaritan, which we heard last Sunday. In that story Jesus contrasts the behavior of two members of the Jewish clergy, a priest and a Levite, with the behavior of a despised outsider, the Samaritan. Though he lacked the knowledge of God=s law available to the priest and the Levite, the Samaritan fulfilled the law=s spirit better than the legal experts. The parable shows the futility of a religion which has no consequences in daily life.
Today=s story of Mary and Martha turns that lesson around. It shows the futility of active service which, because it is not based on attentive listening to God=s word, and nourished by such listening, becomes mere busyness. When Jesus says to Martha, AYou are anxious and worried about many things,@ he is not criticizing her for performing the duties of hospitality, but for doing so without first attending to his word. Martha, we might say, is the kind of person who likes to go about doing good, especially the kind of good that requires a lot of going about.
It is a simple story. But we live in such an action-oriented society that we have difficulty understanding it. Perhaps a modern example from the field of social work may help. Many of today=s programs for helping the poor and disadvantaged are criticized because they are developed by professional do-gooders who have no experience of what it means to be poor and disadvantaged. Hence social workers are told that before trying to help people, they should first listen to the ideas and needs of those they wish to serve. Otherwise even the best-intentioned efforts at assistance risk being perceived by the poor as violations of their dignity, and demonstrations of their inability to control their own lives.
The story in today=s gospel does not ask us to choose between being a Mary or a Martha. The true disciple of Jesus must be both. Mark=s gospel tells us that when Jesus called his twelve apostles, he called them for a dual purpose: Ato be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message@ (Mk 3:14). Which is more important: to be with Jesus, or to proclaim his message others? The question is unanswerable. Both are important. If we ask, however, which must have priority C the relationship or the work C then the answer is clear. Our relationship with the Lord must come first. If we are not willing to spend time with him, sitting at his feet like Mary of Bethany and listening to his words, then all our efforts to do his work are just spinning our wheels. Luke gives us this story to challenge our priorities; to help us see that being with the Lord and hearing his word must be the basis of all we do for him.
When we act without listening, we are guilty of a subtle kind of pride. We are assuming that we already know what must be done, and need no guidance. Acting without first attending to God=s word can mean doing what we want to do, not what God, or the situation, requires of us. The remedy is to sit at the Lord=s feet, like Mary of Bethany in today=s gospel, and listen to his word. Jesus praises this attentive, patient listening because it requires humility B and faith.
Faith has two components. The Catechism states this clearly: AFaith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that
proposes for our
belief, because he is truth itself@ (No. 1814, emphasis supplied). To
believe in someone means trusting that person. Believing
in God means having a personal relationship with him. Like all relationships,
faith must be nourished. Without nourishment, the relationship dies. Holy
A young Pilipino priest whose vocation I nourished for four years at least asked me, shortly before his ordination, if I could write him something, from my own 63 years of experience as a priest, which would help him. One of the things I wrote him was this: “Niko, you can’t make it in the priesthood and you certainly cannot be happy as a priest, unless you spend time alone with God every day -- whether you feel like praying or not. The most important part of my day, apart from the celebration of Mass, is the half hour I spend waiting in silence on the Lord, before I go to the altar for
” So faith is a
relationship of trust, which needs to be constantly nourished. But faith also
means assenting to all that God tells us, through his holy word and the
teaching of his Church. Faith in this sense, more properly called the
faith, is not something we learn once, and then we have it: like learning the
alphabet, the multiplication table, or how to ride a bicycle. If our
understanding of the truths which we profess each Sunday in the Creed is to be
firm, and if it is bear fruit in Christian living, we need to go on listening
to God=s word in Scripture, and the teaching
of the Church, all our lives. I have been to seminary. I have a doctorate in
theology. But I=m still learning. I learned some things about faith in
preparing this homily. Good teachers know that they always learn more than
their students. Mass.
So we need to spend time with the Lord, waiting on him in prayer, and listening to his holy word, proclaimed here at the Eucharist, or read for ourselves; and listening also to the Church=s teaching about our own lives, and about the life of the world around us. And because the Church commissioned me in ordination to proclaim and teach the Church=s faith, I must be constantly reading, studying, reflecting. What I learned decades ago in seminary is not enough. I must be constantly updating my knowledge and keeping it fresh. Without the time I give to prayer, and without study of God=s word and the Church=s teaching, I would be just spinning my wheels.
What is necessary and possible for a priest is not possible for those with family responsibilities. All of us, however, need to make time for God in our lives. Many people come to Mass on weekdays before embarking on their daily tasks. It is a joy for priest to see you who come to Mass on weekdays. Those who cannot manage that, still need to set aside some time during the day, to spend time with the Lord. We all need that. And the busier we are, the more we need such times of quiet listening. Beyond that, we need also to deepen our knowledge of the faith by listening to God=s word in Scripture, whether proclaimed here at the Eucharist, or read over for ourselves at home; and by listening also to the Pope and our bishops, who are our teachers in faith.
Whenever we do this we are like Mary of Bethany. To people without faith, sitting at the Lord=s feet and listening to his words seems a waste of time. We who live by faith, however, know that the Lord loves to have us waste our time on him. Doing so is the best thing we can do with our time. It is the Abetter part@, as Jesus calls it in today=s gospel, which will not be taken from us. Spending time with Jesus Christ, opening our hearts and minds to his words, is the motive and source of all fruitful work for him and for others. Listening to Jesus= words we receive strength to live, as we shall receive also, one day, courage to die.