Put First Those in Need; Put First the Word of God

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Jesus, Mary, and Martha

Here is my homily for July 17, 2022 – the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

First Reading: Genesis 18:1-10a

Psalm: 15

Second Reading: Colossians 1:24-28

Gospel: Luke 10:38-42

Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

At first glance, today’s Old Testament reading about Abraham entertaining the Lord and His angels at his camp in Mamre, and the Gospel about Martha and Mary entertaining Jesus in their home share the theme of offering hospitality. And that is true. In the tradition of his time, Abraham dropped everything and gave of his own resources to make sure the three strangers (for he did not initially know who they were) were well fed and comfortable. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:2).

The Gospel account of Jesus stopping by the home of Mary and Martha immediately follows last Sunday’s Gospel of the Good Samaritan and speaks to a different sort of care the Christian is called to provide. The parable of the Good Samaritan is an example of exceptional, even heroic, care of another. The story of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary speaks to the more common care we have all provided to those to whom we’ve opened our doors in welcome.

Martha gets a bad rap in this story, and many a homilist has tried to temper the disparaging portrait of her, pointing out that her responsibilities were real and overwhelming. Of course, they were. But Martha forgets her primary duty, the duty she has to her guest. Her accusation against Mary is unjustified, Jesus gently tells her, for Mary has chosen the better part of attending first and foremost to her guest, leaving other cares aside for now. The story reminds us of the primacy of the human person. Yes, there are other responsibilities. But we ought not allow those other responsibilities to blind us to our primary duty – and care for the other is always primary. Abraham knew this, and focused entirely on the care of his guests, even before he knew those he entertained were angels.

It is essential that we give primacy to the human person, especially in our culture that does not give much regard to persons. Every person we encounter we ought to approach as we would approach Christ, not because that person is a perfect saint, but because that person could be one who deeply embodies, or strives to embody, or struggles with the fact that he fails to embody, the living Lord. In any case, every person we encounter is one made in the image of God, however covered with dust and grime. Every person we encounter is one destined for immortality – immortal death or immortal life. In each encounter, we ought to consider whether we are helping that person attain the kingdom or putting up obstacles to their doing so. We ought to consider, too, that the practice of approaching each person as we would approach Christ begins with those closest to us, in our home, among our family. If we cannot treat those in our own household as we treat Christ, we will have a difficult time welcoming a guest into our home, much less into our heart.

There is another meaning here. For the One at whose feet Mary sits is not just any guest. He is the Lord. To sit at His feet, as Mary does, is to assume the position of a disciple, one who recognizes the authority of the One who teaches. Furthermore, the Gospel says, Mary “listened to him speaking.” For the disciple to listen is to obey. If the disciple does not obey, does not put into practice in her life the word she has received from the Master, then the disciple has not listened. But Mary listened to what Jesus had to say. She listened to His words, to the words of the One who is the Word. Martha, for her part, is anxious and frazzled. She has focused on the concerns of the household, entangled in the responsibilities she sees before her, making an uproar (that’s literally what the Greek means!) over all the cares she perceives. She has lost her perspective. Not only is she forgetting her primary duty to her guest, but she is allowing other cares and concerns, lesser cares and concerns, to distract her from what ought to be her focus: the word of the Lord!

And what is that word? St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Colossians. It is, “the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. It is he whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”

We are tempted to get lost in the responsibilities of the world. The meeting for which we must prepare. The project we need to get done. The groceries that need to be purchased and the dishes that need to be washed. It’s easy to convince ourselves that the things that must be done take priority over people and even over the word of God. But Jesus says no. Choose the better part. Choose first to take care of those in need. Choose first to listen to the word of God proclaimed for our salvation. Let nothing distract you from what is primary: the presence of God in the other, and the hope we have in His word given to us. “It is Christ in you, the hope for glory.”

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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