16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The story we hear in the Gospel Reading for this Sunday is the lovely story of Martha and Mary from the record, we can establish the Teacher (Jesus) stayed at the house of Martha and Mary in Bethany outside Jerusalem many times. He stayed there in the last three months of the year 29 when He was busily working the Jerusalem territory. He would stay in this house the first four days of Holy Week the sisters were not only generous hostesses but also bold ones. At this point, Jesus was walking about with a price on His head. He was an outlaw.. They hardly would find themselves in good favour with the police, the Temple authorities, and probably the Romans.
But I am certain that they were quite aware that the Jesus was running a risk Himself in being their guest. Accepting hospitality from women was clearly forbidden by Rabbinic law. In addition, He had from their first encounter taken great pains to offer them instruction. This would not make Him popular with the male world in general or with the authorities. The Christ was no doubt the only man in their circle who did not patronize them. He treated them as equals. What a welcome change that must have been for these intelligent women! They must have been so tired of being treated like children. No wonder Dorothy Sayers writes, “Perhaps it is no wonder that women were the first at the cradle and the last at the cross. They had never known a man like this Man…” We all know the story of this gospel. Martha is exhausting herself putting together a meal worthy of a five star restaurant for the Lord. She is setting out the best of the best of everything for the meal the Irish linen, the Wedgewood china, the Tiffany silver, and the Steuben crystal of the time.
During all of this time her sister Mary is enjoying the company of their guest in the coolness of the family room. Martha is hardly amused. She storms into the room. There is Jesus with His worn sandals off and His feet up on the barca lounger. Mary is drinking in every word the Teacher speaks. She looks as though she wished she owned a Sony tape recorder. However, the Japanese had not yet reached Palestine. It is a pity for us that they had not. Martha loses her cool and sounds off with a bitter indictment of Mary the shirker. For her pains, all she gets from Jesus is a wrap-around smile and a healthy chuckle. It does not improve her mood when she hears Him say “It is Mary who has chosen the better part.”
Martha loved Jesus as much as Mary did, and it is clear that he treasured them both. Her mistake was in not trying to find out how Jesus wanted to be entertained, while visiting her house. Her sister correctly senses that when Jesus comes on a visit the last thing he wants is to have people fussing over how to feed him. So, while Martha makes the greater housekeeping effort, Mary understands better what is expected of her by him. Her contemplative intuition grasps instinctively the real reason for Jesus’ visit. He is there not to receive but to give, not to be served but to serve. He has something he needs to say and the one thing necessary is to listen to his voice. As we see in the gospel, God’s Message came in person to Mary, the sister of Martha, and we see her vibrant relationship with God in Christ. On one level, we feel sorry for Martha, being left to do the household work on her own, but the key value here is that our listening to God, our attentiveness to Christ must never be drowned out by the bustle of our everyday lives. Then, in the reading from St Paul we are told how the Word of God, hidden from all mankind for centuries, comes to the gentiles.
How do we understand the complementarity of Martha’s generous hospitality in meeting Jesus’ need for food and Mary’s longing for personal communion with him? In response, we might follow the way of Jesus. He fed the hungry, cured the sick and expelled demons of every kind as an expression of love. In other words, our love must also become incarnate in whatever we do to meet the needs of others. Thus, our good work becomes a sacrament or an effective sign of our self-giving love. Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz, expressed a similar understanding when she wrote that in prayer “‘God can enter you, and something of ‘Love’ too…the love you can apply to small, everyday things.”
Only one thing really matters in the hurly-burly of our modem world, that is that we choose the better part we choose the better part when we make space for God in our lives, when we reach out and grasp the message which God is continually presenting to us through many people in so many places we might find ourselves. We make space for God in our lives when we make the message of God our own, and that we allow it to guide and shape us, as we live and as we hope to die, in fulfillment of God’s wishes for us. Let us not be afraid to take the better part especially in this year of Faith.