Commentary on the Readings
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
Christ the Guest, but not for one day
“For we are strangers before you, settlers only as all our ancestors were. Our days on earth pass like a shadow” (1 Chr 29:15). The lesson that Israel has assimilated from the experience of the desert is captured in the words of David; he lived in tents, homeless, asked hospitality from other peoples and often was refused (Num 20:14-21), so he has learned to appreciate the welcome.
Rashi, the famous medieval commentator of the Scriptures, reminded his people: “Even if the Egyptians threw in the Nile our newborn males, we must not forget that they welcomed us in time of need, during the famine in the time of Joseph and his brothers.”
For Christians hospitality is a reminder of their status as pilgrims in this world. But it recalls them above all that Christ came into the world as an alien: “He came to His own, yet his own people did not receive him” (Jn 1:11). Today he continues to ask for hospitality: “Look, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my call and open the door, I will come in to you and have supper with you, and you with me” (Rev 3:20). He asks to enter into the life of every person, every society, every institution.
Jerusalem did not recognize the time and the visitation of her God (Lk 19:44). She remains always hesitant and undecided when Jesus knocks at the door. She hesitates before opening the door because she intuits that his word will eventually upset the whole house. We would prefer, that at least he would not visit some corner. We would like to reserve him for ourselves, leaving him in order according to our liking.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “A rising sun from above will come to visit us.”
If we receive an invitation to dine with someone who did not receive any benefit from us, we would suspect, distrust, and begin to speculate. We do not spontaneously think that he is disinterested, that he does not think of his own advantage. The kindness, the thoughtfulness, the attentions are usually reserved for friends and relatives and to those from whom one hopes to one day receive some favor. The more widespread hospitality—that based on the calculation of benefits—is not biblical.
The characteristic of an authentic hospitality is its gratuity and of this two personages are models in Israel: Job and Abraham. The first is said to have built his house with four doors, one at each cardinal point, to prevent the poor getting tired in finding the entry. Abraham is remembered for the warm welcome that has reserved to God narrated in today’s reading.
He is sitting at the entrance of the tent and is resting in the heat of the day. Two verses before (Gen 17:26), the sacred text notes that he was circumcised. He is therefore “convalescent.” Abraham, nevertheless, as soon as he sees the “three men” standing nearby, runs to meet them. He orders to bring water for them to cool off their feet and makes them sit under a tree. Then he calls Sarah and enjoins her to cook; he asks her for cakes. He himself runs to the herd, chooses a tender calf and gives it to the servant who immediately prepares it. When everything is ready, he gives the guests sour milk, fresh milk and the calf.
This improvised menu gave more of a headache to the rabbis because Abraham, offering contemporaneously meat and milk, violates the most basic rules of Jewish food law. In fact it is forbidden to combine meat and daily products during the same meal. Of course, this law will be enacted much later… but one can also think that it is the concern towards the guests (a cup of fresh yogurt is more acceptable than a simple glass of water) that makes Abraham to ignore the precept.
While they eat, he remains standing, at their side, under the tree. He remains vigilant and attentive, ready to meet their every need, to respond to their every desire.
Note the changes: at the beginning Abraham is sitting quietly and the guests standing; at the end the positions are reversed: the three men are comfortably lounging on the mat, while the landlord is standing to serve them. Before the arrival of the three visitors, everything is calm and quiet in the tent of Abraham. One can only hear the rustling of leaves moved by the breeze in the heat of day and the cicadas chirping on the oaks. Suddenly the scene comes alive: Abraham, Sarah, the servants begin to move fast; they hurry and run. Abraham, especially, does not stop for a moment; he stops at the end, when the guests are quietly enjoying his food.
The Hebrew language does not like abstract words, so it does not know the term hospitality. It is a concrete language, as the people who speak it, for a people for whom to respect and to help one in need and who asks to be welcomed and protected are sacred.
Abraham’s hospitality is pleasing to God and, to show how much he appreciated it, God gave him the greatest favor that the patriarch could want: He gave him a son. It is a sign that any form of welcome offered to those in need is most pleasing to God.
Hospitality is synonymous with care, availability, benevolence, kindness towards one who asks to be welcomed in our thoughts, attention, estimation.
Under the guise of the poor—the Christian today knows—it is God who is asking to be welcomed (Mt 25:31-46) as it happened one day with Abraham, at the oaks of Mamre.
Paul, when he writes this letter, is already getting on in years. Few have worked as him. In today’s passage he asserts that, despite all the suffering, he feels deeply happy because he knows he has devoted his entire life to the cause of the Gospel. In him, Christ has continued his work: he is made present among people and offered them his love (v. 24). In prison Paul is forced to inactivity, but, thinking back on his own life, he can affirm to have used it well: he announced to the pagans the mystery hidden for ages and generations and now revealed to Christians (vv. 25-27). What remains for him it to commit his last remaining strength to educate every person in rendering everyone perfect in Christ (vv. 28-29).
When, during the mass, or in a Bible meeting I happen to read this passage, at the end I carefully scrutinize the faces of those present, trying to guess their reactions. I generally see rather embarrassed faces and there I throw out the challenge: “It seems that you do not completely agree with what Jesus said to Martha.”
At this point the winks, smiles, whispering comments all hostile to Mary begin. The disapproval is unanimous even if one does not have the courage to express it. Someone equally dares to joke: but how can one scold a woman who works and praise a slacker? It is comfortable to sit in prayer while others are busy!
A further complication came from the mystical interpretations of this passage. Some cite this to demonstrate the superiority of the contemplative over active life. It says that the nuns and the monks—who in the peace of their cloisters spend their lives reciting prayers—have chosen the better part. The diocesan priests instead, absorbed by many parish activities and lay people who are dedicated to charitable works, even if they perform sacrifices and renunciations, would be less spiritually perfect.
Understood in this way, the teaching of today’s Gospel—let’s face it—is at odds with that of last Sunday’s. There Jesus praised the Good Samaritan who had been busy, today he seems to offer a woman who does not move a finger to help her sister as a model.
The use of this text to contrast the contemplative life to the active is also due to a mistranslation. In the original Jesus does not say: Mary has chosen the better part, but simply has chosen the good part, that: while Martha gets carried away by agitation, Mary makes the right choice, acts as a wise person. Let’s see why.
Luke likes to present Jesus seated at table in someone’s home. He accepted the invitations of all: those of the “righteous” of the Pharisees (Lk 7:36; 11:37; 14:1) and those of tax collectors and sinners (Lk 5:30; 15:2; 19:6) . Today we find him in the house of two sisters.
Martha, the oldest, puts herself to work immediately. Her feminine sensibility suggests that a glass of good wine and a plate of tasty meat, served with kindness, show more affection than any talk for a person. Mary, the youngest, instead of working in the kitchen, prefers to stay seated to listen to Jesus. It is at this point that between the two sisters a quarrel erupts that will end up involving the guest.
Before entering the central theme, we clarify a detail of the story: “Mary sat down at the Lord’s feet to listen to his words” (v. 39). The position taken by Mary disclosed: she sat down at the Lord’s feet. This is not a trivial information, because the original text accentuates the detail: “Mary, who was even sitting at the feet of Jesus.” It is an expression that has a very specific technical value. At that time it served to indicate the inclusion of a rabbi among the disciples. It was applied to those who regularly and officially attended his lectures. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, Paul proudly recalls, “I was educated in the school of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3), that is, “I was a disciple of the most famous of masters of my time.”
Is it strange that Mary is presented as a “pupil” of Jesus? Not for us, but, at that time, no teacher would ever accept a woman among his disciples. The rabbis said: “It is better to burn the Bible than put it in the hands of a woman”; and also: “Women don’t dare to pronounce the blessing before meals”; and then further: “If a woman goes to the synagogue, let her be hidden, not appearing in public.” This mentality was so widespread that it also infiltrated in the early Christian communities. In Corinth, for example, it abided for a time, to this standard: “Let women be silent in the assemblies. They are not allowed to speak. If there is anything they desire to know, let them consult their husbands at home. It is shameful for a woman to speak in Church” (1 Cor 14:34-35).
Since this is the mentality of the time, it is easy to understand how revolutionary was the choice of Jesus to welcome also women among his disciples. And while we’re at it, we can recall that even the opening phrase of the story contains the same challenge: “A woman called Martha welcomed him to her house” (v. 38). At that time it was considered highly improper for a man to accept the hospitality offered by women. Perhaps it is not by chance that Luke does not mention his brother Lazarus who is remembered only in John’s Gospel (Jn 11; 12:1-8).
It is the beginning of the new world: all the prejudices and discriminations between man and woman—the legacy of a culture and of pagan inheritance—are denounced and overcome by Jesus.
A second important observation on this v. 39: it does not say that Mary is absorbed in prayer, that she is “contemplating” Jesus, but that she listens to his word. She does not listen to the words, the chatter, but the Word, the Gospel. We cannot therefore call on her to justify the devoutness and religious introspection. Mary is the model of those who give priority to listening to the Word.
And now we come to the most difficult point in today’s Gospel: the enigmatic response of Jesus to Martha (vv. 40-41).
If the question is posed in terms of reproach to those who work and praise of the idle it is difficult to agree with Jesus. But is this what he means?
First it should be noted that Martha is not reprimanded because she works, but because she is agitated, anxious, worried. She is troubled about so many things, and above all, because she is committed to work without having first heard the Word.
Mary is praised, it is true, but not because she is a slacker, pretending not to notice the work in the kitchen. Jesus does not say that Martha is wrong when he reminds her of the concrete commitments; he does not suggest Mary to be crafty and let her sister busies herself all alone. He just says that the most important thing, to which priority should be given—If we do not want to reduce our business to agitation—is listening to the Word.
Let’s make a summary of what we said. We certainly do not care much to know that one day, in the presence of Jesus, the two sisters have bickered among themselves. Luke mentions this incident as a lesson of catechesis to Christian communities of the past and of today. He knows that in them there are many people of good will, many disciples dedicate themselves to the service of Christ and the brothers and sisters. They are generous of their time, effort and money. Yet even in this intense and generous activity there lurks a danger: that much feverish work is separated from hearing the word, and becomes anxiety, confusion, nervousness, just like that of Martha. Even the apostolic commitment, communitarian choices, pastoral projects not guided by the Word are reduced into vain noises, broken stirring of pots and ladles.
Mary has chosen the good part because she has heard the Word. Even the other Mary, the mother of Jesus, is praised for the same reason: because she was attentive to the Word (Lk 1:38,45; 2:19; 8:21). It is curious: the models of listening to the Word that we get in the Gospels are all represented by women! Could it be because they really are more sensitive and more willing than men to listen to the Master?
The passage ends with the words of Jesus to Martha (vv. 41-42), but it seems unfinished. The dialogue between the two should be continued, but Luke does not report it. He seems to want to draw the attention of his readers on another detail which can go unnoticed: the silence of Mary.
Throughout the story Mary does not say a word, not even to defend herself, to clarify her position or explain her choice. She is silent and it leads to suppose that her silence—a sign of meditation and internalization of the Word—is prolonged even beyond.
It is Martha who now needs to sit at the feet of Jesus to listen to and recover the calm, the serenity and inner peace.
While Jesus and Martha continue to talk, I imagine Mary who, deep in thought, quiet and happy, puts on her apron and takes her sister’s place in the kitchen. Martha is generous, industrious, dynamic, but she made a mistake: she is overworked before confronting the Word.
That night Mary—I think—has certainly worked a lot and so showed that the time devoted to listening to the word of God is not lost or stolen from the brothers and sisters. Who listens to Christ does not forget the commitment to people: he/she learns to do it the right way… without agitation.
There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel: http://www.bibleclaret.org/videos