16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Hospitality was one of the marked characteristics of the people of the ancient world. To treat a guest well was a duty of honor, but to allow him to be insulted in one's house was a serious fault. To kill a guest was the most infamous of crimes. Perhaps the well known hospitality of the Jews of the Bible had its roots in the story of their father, Abraham, which we have today in our first reading from the Book of Genesis.
This story is set at the Terebinth of Mamre. A terebinth is a tree, and it seems as if Abraham and his family and his cowhands had camped by a whole grove of terebinths where grass and water would be plentiful. Right before the episode with the three visitors the Lord had appeared to Abraham and promised that he and his elderly wife, Sara, would conceive a son which would carry on his race forever. Now Abraham had had a child by one of his slaves, but Sara, his legitimate wife, had been unable to conceive. When Abraham hears this news his first reaction is to fall down laughing in disbelief since he and Sara are beyond child bearing age.
Now in our reading these three strangers come into town and Abraham rushes to offer them the traditional hospitality. He springs into action and involves his wife and servant in preparing food and drink for the visitors. Abraham waits on the men himself while Sara remains in the tent. Is this a breach of hospitality on her part? Could it be that like many wives she doesn't like the idea of waiting on every Tom, Dick, and Harry her husband brings home? Finally, our reading ends when one of the visitors tells Abraham that Sara will indeed have a son by next year. If our account had gone on a few more verses we would have found that when Abraham told Sara this news, she also broke out laughing in disbelief. Was that another breach of hospitality?
For the last few weeks our readings from St. Luke's gospel have given us a picture of Jesus’ travels on the road to Jerusalem. Chapter 10 of St. Luke's gospel seems to be all about hospitality. First, Jesus entered a Samaritan village but was refused hospitality. Then he sent 72 disciples out with instructions to expect hospitality wherever they went. Last week, he told the great story of the "Good Samaritan" who offered hospitality to the man who had been beaten and stripped by robbers. This week our Lord is welcomed at the home of the sisters, Martha and Mary.
The story of Martha and Mary is deservedly well-known. Theologians have discerned great significance in the roles of the two women. Mary is regarded especially in the Greek and Russian church as the symbol of the contemplative life. She has turned her back on the cares of the world, and seeks only to discover the word of God. Martha is the symbol of the active person who enters into life and seeks to do good works.
It is true that the world could not go on without Marthas. Many of the greatest saints had a lot of Martha in them. St. Teresa of Avila, a noted mystic of the 16th century, was also a skilled administrator and reformer of her religious order. In our own time Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose whole life was devoted to prayer, still ministered to the sick and dying with her own hands, and created the most successful religious order of the 20th century.
In fact, all of us, whether man or woman, are a lot like Martha. It is hard not to take her side against her sister. Who of us has not been at a family gathering where one member of the family seems to be doing all the work while the others sit around talking and having a good time? Nevertheless, our Lord finds it necessary, although with great feeling and love, to gently admonish Martha.
Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Where has Martha gone wrong? I'd like to suggest a couple of possibilities. Perhaps she has committed a basic breach of hospitality. She has invited someone into her home but then gets so wrapped up in her duties as hostess that she pays little attention to her guest. Moreover, it was she who had invited the Lord into the house in the first place and now she is complaining about the work she has to do. It says elsewhere in the Bible that the Lord loves a "cheerful giver." Finally, is there a hint of jealously of her sister, Mary?
Perhaps our Lord is saying, as he never tires of saying, that the old laws or ways while good in themselves do not go far enough. The law says, "Thou shall not kill," but He says do not even be angry. The law says, "Thou shall not commit adultery," but He says don't even think about it. The law says, "Thou shall not bear false witness," but He says the Truth shall set you free. The law says, "Love your neighbor as yourself," but last week He gave us a lesson on who is our neighbor.
The basis of the law of hospitality among the Jews was the belief that the stranger or visitor at your door might have been sent by God, Himself. The early Christians believed that the visitor might be Jesus, Himself. After all, He did say in the famous passage from Matthew that when we offered hospitality to the least of our brethren, we offered it to Him. When He knocks at the door, it is up to us to drop everything and welcome Him.
Maybe this is the mystery that St. Paul speaks of in today's reading from Colossians, "the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past."
Reading 1. Genesis 18: 1-10a
Reading II. Colossians 1: 24-28
Gospel. Luke 10: 38-42 (Martha and Mary).