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Reflections for the XVI Sunday

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the sixteenth Sunday in ordinary time. He says that the central themes of today’s readings are the importance of hospitality in Christian life and the necessity of listening to God before acting.

Gn 18:1-10a; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42

Introduction: The central themes of today’s readings are the importance of hospitality in Christian life and the necessity of listening to God before acting. The key to the Christian life is setting priorities: Jesus Christ first, then everything else. The only way really to learn that lesson is to spend some time every day, "sitting at the feet of Jesus." The only way really to learn that lesson is to spend some time every day, "sitting at the feet of Jesus." Today’s first reading describes how Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to strangers was rewarded by God. The Gospel passage describes how Martha, a true child of Abraham, wanted to extend the traditional generous hospitality of her people to Jesus, the true Messiah, by preparing an elaborate meal for him, while her sister Mary spent her time in talking to him and listening to him. Presenting Martha as a dynamo of action and Mary as a true listener to the word of God, today’s Gospel invites us to serve others with Martha’s diligence, after recharging our spiritual batteries every day by prayer - listening to God and talking to God – as Mary did. We are able to minister truly to the needs of others only after welcoming God’s Word into our hearts and minds.

Homily starter anecdote: Start each day with an hour of prayer. “A true story is told about an advertising executive at Reader’s Digest, who found her emptiness filled in by prayer, listening to God, as Mary did in today’s Gospel.  In spite of her successful career, she had felt emptiness in her life. One morning, during a breakfast meeting with her marketing consultant, she mentioned that emptiness. “Do you want to fill it?” her colleague asked. “Of course, I do,” she said. He looked at her and replied, “Then start each day with an hour of prayer.” She looked at him and said, “Don, you’ve got to be kidding. If I tried that, I’d go off my rocker.” Don smiled and said, “That’s exactly what I said 20 years ago.” The woman left the restaurant in turmoil. Begin each morning with prayer? Begin each morning with an hour of prayer? Absolutely out of the question! Yet, the next morning she found herself doing exactly that. And she’s been doing it ever since. This woman is the first to admit that it has not always been easy. There have been mornings when she was filled with great peace and joy. But there have been other mornings when she was filled with nothing but weariness. And it was on these weary mornings that she remembered something else that her marketing consultant said. “There will be times when your mind just won’t go into God’s sanctuary. That’s when you spend your hour in God’s waiting room. Still, you’re there, and God appreciates your struggle to stay there.” Today’s Gospel reminds us of the need to combine work and prayer. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/).

First reading -- Genesis 18:1-10, explained:  This is the story of Abraham and Sarah and their offering of hospitality to three strangers. Both the ancient Jews and the early Christians believed that the best way to show their dedication to God was to be dedicated to hospitality. Three visitors appeared unexpectedly before Abraham’s tent. Abraham was wealthy enough to play the very generous host with the best of his contemporaries, and he was spiritually keen, sensing that his visitors were disguised angels. He and his wife, Sarah promptly started making preparations for a lavish meal with which to refresh their guests. Their generous hospitality was even more generously rewarded. God, speaking through the guests, promised that the aged couple would have a son within a year! The birth announcement was a sign of the fulfillment of God’s promises of progeny, prosperity, and property, a homeland for Abraham.  If we open our hearts and our homes to God, the impossible can happen – God’s presence can overturn things. For the Israelites, this story was a sign of how God’s plan of salvation would be carried out through them, and they waited for the promised Messiah from the offspring of Abraham and Sarah. Because of his exemplary hospitality, Abraham has been featured in rabbinic stories as the founder of inns for travelers and the inventor and teacher of grace after meals. He may have been the inspiration for the missionary host who insisted that his guests praise Israel’s God for their room and board or pay cash for it!

Second reading -- Colossians 1: 24-28, explained:   Paul did not establish the Christian community at Colossae. But the elders there appealed to him for help in some doctrinal and disciplinary issues, and Paul agreed to assist them. In the second reading, Paul presents his credentials to the Colossians. Saint Paul had suffered many hardships in preaching the Good News brought by Jesus, the same Messiah whom he had encountered on the way to Damascus.  He reported that he had not only been invited to join the suffering ministry of the risen Jesus but had also been given the insight that he was actually suffering "on behalf of His body, which is the Church." Paul could honestly look even at the Gentiles and state that he saw "Christ in you, the hope for glory.” Paul was speaking figuratively when he stated that he filled up what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ (v. 24). Obviously, the saving sacrifice of Jesus was absolute and complete. Therefore, Paul's statement should be understood as a metaphorical expression of the author’s incredible closeness to Christ as a member of His Body, the Church, a closeness which enabled him to make Jesus’ suffering his own. What was lacking was not the atoning power of the cross but its manifestation in the Church as a present reality. Paul also believed that he had been commissioned by God to minister to the Church, as the revealer of the mystery of salvation and the preacher of the word in its fullness (v. 25). Paul invites believers to open their hearts and minds to welcome the mystery of Christ. Those who consent, by Faith, to become “hosts” of the mystery are thereby challenged to cultivate that quality of hospitality that welcomes all others in Christ.

Gospel exegesis: Home away from home: Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary were good friends of Jesus. Their little village of Bethany was located two miles from Jerusalem, and according to the Gospel of John, Jesus visited Jerusalem at least six times. In other words, Jesus, the most popular rabbi of the time, often visited the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus as their closest family friend.  In addition, Jesus was the Messiah who had raised Lazarus from death and given him back to his sisters. It was Mary's simple statement of Faith that brought tears to our Lord's eyes; “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” [John 11:32]. Furthermore, Jesus had made no secret that this was his last journey, as he had stated repeatedly that he would die in Jerusalem. Since Martha owned the house, and she was the older sister, she decided to make the last dinner for their great friend something very special.

The problem of hospitality in the early House Churches:  Luke might have been using this incident from the life of Jesus to address a common problem of hospitality in House Churches (the only kind of Churches there were!) where the early Christians gathered for prayer and the Eucharistic service. Traditional values and hospitality would have placed a heavy expectation on the woman of the house, while the guests were listening to the preaching of the apostles or elders. The story is thus an indirect invitation for all the participants to share in the arrangements and preparation of the food. That would enable everyone to participate in the whole Eucharistic service and would save the host family from unnecessary worries. The assembled Marys should approach the Martha of the house and say “Let’s listen to the preacher first, and then let’s work together in the kitchen to feed the assembled ones.” Everyone was to be included and no one was to be left aside, trapped in a cooking role which kept her from participating in the entire service.

Our priorities: The episode is also intended to teach us how we should set our priorities. Traditionally, today’s Gospel story has been interpreted to mean that the quiet life of contemplation and prayer led by monks and nuns and personified in Mary, is superior to a busy life of activity and action, personified in Martha. Jesus did not intend to belittle Martha and her activity, but rather to show that hearing the word of God is the foundation of all action, and that the word of God must permeate all other concerns. The highest priority must be given to listening to the word. Prayer and actions must be continuous, complementary and mutually dependent. Prayer without action is sterile, and action without prayer is empty. We are expected to be "contemplatives in action" because only those who listen carefully to the Word of God know how to behave in the way that God wants, when they show deep concern for the well-being of other people.  That is why Jesus reminds Martha that proper service for him is attention to his instruction, not just an elaborate provision for his physical needs. Mary shows her love for the Lord by listening to him. Jesus in fact, needed Mary and Martha to keep him company and to listen to him because he was preparing to face the cross. By this episode, Jesus teaches his disciples that those who minister among God’s people must be actively listening to his words thus becoming hospitable hosts and hostesses, welcoming into their hearts and attending to the good news of salvation. At every Mass, we are offered the very hospitality of Jesus at the table of the Eucharist to become both Mary and Martha. Both Mary and Martha are teaching would-be disciples that their following of Jesus and their service in his name will require frequent spiritual refueling by prayer, silence and communion with God. Otherwise, service can become a crushing responsibility, a burden rather than a vocation, or a loving response to the invitation of God. 

Expression of love: In his Gospel, Luke frequently shows women in places of honor. Here, Mary is presented as sitting at Jesus’ feet to receive his teaching, the posture of a disciple, a man’s role in that time and place. Mary’s presumptuous posture and the attention she was receiving may have embarrassed Martha. Martha may have suspected, as many cast in her mold do, that Jesus loved her ‘spiritual’ sister better than herself, and that Jesus had little regard for the mundane work she was doing in the kitchen. Hence, it is no wonder that Martha was distracted! Her hands were busy, but her resentments were busier. How are we to understand the complementarities of Martha’s hospitality in meeting Jesus’ need for food, and Mary’s longing for personal communion with him? Our love of God must become incarnate in whatever we do to meet the needs of others. Thus, our good work – whether cooking a meal or voting for a bill in Congress – becomes a sacrament or an effective sign of our self-giving love. The proper service of Jesus is attention to his instruction not an elaborate provision for his physical needs.

Life Messages: 1) We need to recharge our spiritual batteries: It is a well-known fact that those who are in the caring professions, like doctors, nurses, pastors, social workers and even parents, often suffer from burnout and terminal exhaustion as Martha did.  People suffering from burnout often end up angry, anxious, and worried. Hence, occasionally we need to put aside the work we do for the Lord in serving others and just spend some time being with Him, talking to Him and listening to Him, fully aware of His holy presence in our souls. We may do the recharging of our spiritual energy also by our personal and family prayers, by the meditative reading of the Bible and by participating in the celebration of the Holy Mass. Christian husbands and wives should develop “couple spirituality” and seek more opportunities to pray together. The Martha and Mary episode teaches us the need for balance between service and prayer and the need for spending time with the Lord, learning from Him and recharging our spiritual batteries with the power of the Holy Spirit.

2) We need listening Marthas and serving Marys: Martha has become a symbol of action-oriented, responsible people who get the job done. Our world needs such men, women, boys and girls, and so does the Church. How would the Church survive if not for the Marthas and Bills who sing in the choir, run the altar guild, work with the homeless, work with the youth, and build the Church? The Church could not exist without them. The same is true with the family. We need responsible people to do the work in the house: to cook, to clean, to keep the house operating, to pay the bills, to keep the cars running, not to speak of rearing the children and loving the spouse. Households can’t survive without Marthas and Bills. Nor can offices, schools or businesses. There is nothing wrong with being a responsible, action-oriented, get-it-done kind of person. But we must find time to listen to God speaking to us through His word and time to talk to God. Jesus clearly said, “be hearers and doers of the word.” Jesus never reversed that order.

3) We need to be good listeners, like Mary, at home and in the workplace.  Martha has become a symbol of you and me in the modern world. We have become so active and busy with living our lives that we no longer have time to slow down and quietly listen to God, or even to our spouse, kids or friends. We become so active in doing good things that our activities become a cover-up for our lack of listening and quiet caring. We come home from a day of work and the kids are talking to us at the kitchen table. We nod affirmatively at their words without listening. Our spouse wants to share what has happened during the day and we don’t hear a word that is spoken, being entirely preoccupied with what has happened at our workplace.  Human love begins at home, and it begins with listening. The more one listens, the more love grows. The less one listens, the less love there is. This is certainly true in marriage. Any good marriage will show us a man and woman who have discovered what it means to listen to one another. That is also true in good families and in good businesses. We can so easily get the Martha-syndrome because there is always so much work to do: at our place of employment, at home with the kids or in the yard, at Church and school, at the various groups we or our children are a part of. But let's not be like Martha who got distracted with much serving. Rather, let us take time out every day to listen to Jesus, to get to know Jesus better, to be His guest and to welcome Him as ours.

4) We need to serve the Lord with Martha’s diligence: Some of mankind's greatest contributions have come from people who decided that no sacrifice was too large and no effort too great to accomplish what they set out to do. Edward Gibbon spent 26 years writing The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Noah Webster worked diligently for 36 years to bring into print the first edition of his Webster’s Dictionary. It is said that the Roman orator Cicero practiced before friends every day for 30 years in order to perfect his public speaking. Most of the famous scientists sacrificed their whole lives on their research for the betterment of human lives. Now let's think about how much energy we put into the Lord's work in an age when people are self-serving, self-centered, and self-indulgent. Why is our service for Christ sometimes performed in a halfhearted manner? Why do some people who pursue earthly goals put us to shame with their diligence?

5) God does us a favor by hosting a meal for us every Sunday: We don’t do God a favor by showing up for Church on Sunday and throwing something into the plate.  This does nothing for God.  It does not enhance His dignity or add anything to His power or glory.  God does us a favor by hosting a meal for us every Sunday in which He offers Himself to us as food, in the most intimate act of communion with Himself imaginable. Mass is not about what we do for God, but about what God does for us.  At this Sunday’s Mass, let’s pray more intensely for God to work in our hearts, to forgive our sin and transform the way we think and act, that we can become like the man of Psalm 15 who is suitable to dwell in God’s presence; or like Mary, who understood the “one thing” necessary and was willing to say “No” to distractions and demands in order to soak in the presence and teaching of Jesus. (The Sacred Space). (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

18 July 2019, 09:50