16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

My Dear People,

Since the parable of the good Samaritan emphasizes love of neighbor, many scholars suggest that this text passage instead highlights love of “the Lord your God” (10:27: see vv. 39-41), where the title Lord is again used for Jesus. Moreover, like the earlier list of women who followed Jesus along with the Twelve, this passage highlights women disciples, Martha and Mary, who happen to be siblings. In typical Lukan fashion, they complement James and John, siblings as well, who appeared at the beginning of the journey (9:54) that now continues. Martha welcomed Jesus, and so the passage further explains what it means to welcome Jesus and his gospel message (10:8).

The village of Martha and Mary, unspecified by Luke, is Bethany, according to John’s Gospel (11:1). Bethany is near Jerusalem (“about two miles away,” John (11:18), so Luke fittingly mentions it toward the end of the journey there (Luke 19:29). However, the mention of Bethany is near the beginning of the central section, when Jesus is presumably still some distance from Jerusalem, which would not fit the geographic framework. The “orderly sequence” of Luke’s narrative can be logical rather than chronological (1:3).

Mary assumes the posture of a disciple by sitting beside the Lord at his feet (8:35: Acts 22:3). “Her focus is on listening to him speak—literally, “to his word.” She is doing exactly what the voice at the transfiguration said to do: “Listen to him” (Luke 9:35). So, she realizes what a blessed opportunity it is to hear what she hears (10:23-24).

Martha on the other hand, is burdened or “distracted” because of much serving. Certainly, Martha’s effort to serve her special guest are all well and good. Indeed, she is following Old Testament precedent: the widow of Zarephath and the woman of Shumen gave much hospitality to the prophets Elijah and Elisha (1Kings 17:10-16; 2 Kings 4:8). However, there is already a hint of her shortcoming in the description. Since there is so “much” to do, she is distracted and too busy to pay attention to Jesus’ words. Her concern also leads her to want to take her sister away from Jesus, whom she asks to intervene: Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do all the serving?  She follows up her question, which expects a yes answer, with a command: tell her to help me.

In response, Jesus corrects her as earlier he corrected James and John (Luke 9:55). Affectionately repeating her name (see 22:31)—Martha, Martha—he points out what is wrong with her fretful activity:  you are anxious and worried. In the parable of the sower, Jesus had warned that anxieties can be like thorns, choking a person’s response to the Word (8;4). He later cautions against being anxious (12:22,25-26) and allowing oneself to be weighed down with the anxieties of life (2134). Certainly, Martha’s anxieties spring from her desire to serve Jesus, not from pursuit of sinful pleasures also mentioned in these other verses. However, Jesus’ teaching about not being anxious has general application.

Second, he explains why Mary’s behavior is proper. Whereas, Martha is concerned about many things, Jesus explains that only one thing is necessary: listening to him. In other words, the aspect that takes priority when Jesus is “welcomed” (10:38) is welcoming—in other words, listening to—his message of salvation, as Mary was doing. This is the better part (“the good portion,”) that Mary, like “good soil” (8:8, 15), has chosen (see 9:35).

Interestingly Lydia in Acts makes the right combination, responding like both Mary and Martha. First she “listened” to the gospel message preached by Paul and then offered hospitality to him and his companions (Acts 16:14-15).

Active and contemplative.  From early on in Christianity history, Martha and Mary have been understood as signifying the active life and the contemplative life. For contemporary Christians, it is helpful to emphasize the unity of these two dimensions of their lives; union with God through prayer overflows into all one’s activity, so that they bear fruit (see John 15:5).

Yours in Christ,

Fr. Vincent Clemente


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