Jul 16, 2016

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Not either/or but both/and

"There is need of only one thing . . ."

Gen 18: 1-10A
Col 1: 24-28
Lk 10: 38-42

Hospitality, the welcome of friends, family and even strangers, into our homes and our lives is a valued and important virtue.  I think we are programed to naturally gather with others in groups of various size whether mere casual conversation or more formal and ritualized occasions that mark the passages of our lives.  In our Catholic faith we view the sacramental moments of baptism, first communion, weddings, funerals and such to be moments when we come together with family and friends, often some we have not seen in quite a while.

Ultimately, it is our gathering for holy Mass each weekend or daily when we break open God’s Word and share in Christ’s Body and Blood that we see ourselves as a communion of persons, a body of believers, called to announce the Gospel of the Lord. At those liturgical moments we welcome Christ in word and sacrament.

Surely, we may call this practice a kind of “holy hospitality.”  Our first reading and Gospel this Sunday portray a moment of holy hospitality when the Lord himself comes to visit both Abraham and Martha and Mary welcome Jesus into their home. 

Abraham seems extremely eager to please his three visitors: “he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said . . .” Here I see Abraham acting in the same manner as little Zacchaeus (Lk 19: 1-10) who hurried down the tree he was sitting in above the taller crowd around him to welcome Jesus into his home.  Abraham certainly becomes busy about many things as he prepares to accommodate his three visitors: “Quick, three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls. He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice steer . . .”

Well, all of this preparation took some time so these visitors (symbolic of the Holy Trinity) stayed a while with Abraham.  The point, however, should not be missed.  Abraham welcomed the Lord into his life – he made room for this divine presence and in the end was rewarded greatly: “Sarah will have a son.” God will not be outdone by our hospitality for he offers more than we can ever give.  However, our task is to welcome him when he arrives.

In the same vein, Martha and Mary welcome Jesus to their home.  On a cultural level, this was in fact cause for great scandal. The story finds Jesus alone with two women, in their home!  Such a scenario would have been forbidden in Jesus time and surely made him suspect. No separation between the genders, for Mary sits at the feet of Jesus just as a male disciple would. 

Yet, here Luke’s Gospel assures his community and us by association, that the welcome of Jesus into our lives is primary above other things. Christ is not just an ordinary man and his presence with Martha and Mary not only emphasizes Jesus crossing cultural lines but his own invitation to those on the fringe of society, to hear his word and to learn from it to follow the good news of the Gospel. It is God they welcome in Christ himself.

Yet, is Martha off base here missing the better part as she is busy about the necessities of hospitality? Jesus seeming disregard for the fussiness of Martha’s domestic concerns remind us that we must put aside what distracts us and pay attention.  Set some priorities in life, for example, for not everything is equally important and not everything needs our immediate attention.   Some things can and should wait until another time in order for the "better part" of things to receive our care.

Still, what of Jesus’ own call to be active in our faith; the corporal works of mercy for example?  To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty and those many ways in which we engage in social service – don’t they have value too or must we just spend our day sitting at the feet of the Lord and contemplate? Parish life is busy and my life as a priest in parish work is extremely taken up with many things.

Who will man the soup kitchens, the local food banks, our outreach to the homeless, and those who are economically disadvantaged?  What about the numerous hospitals and schools all of which make our Catholic lives very busy about many things like Martha?
Martha and Mary, the quintessential example of contemplation and action, provide both lessons for us – that it is not an either/ or but a kind of both/ and.  Even the monastic life or cloistered contemplative communities must be busy about things.  We all know how multi-tasking parents are these days taking kids to soccer games, school, and hopefully church worship and activities as well.

What is of value is that our lives must be open to greet the Lord when we meet him.  We are not glorified social workers for on one level what’s the difference between what we do and what a well-meaning atheist may do who may likewise feed the hungry and clothe the naked? The difference may be in our perspective and our motivation. 

We do good after the example of Christ himself.  We draw strength from those moments of quiet prayer, sharing in the Word and Eucharist each week, and the conscious effort we make to see Christ in others, especially in the less fortunate among us.  

To hear his word to see his sacramental presence and his life in others we must take some time to sit at his feet.  It is both a life prayerfully in touch with the Lord and a life in which we see him in the many actions we do – we welcome him in others, we see him in the call to compassion and mercy towards the disadvantaged, the sick, the forgotten and the lonely. 

Contemplation and action both have value.  When the two are blended together - when we find the Lord among us in our liturgy, our prayer, the call for assistance to those in need, and the many other ways God comes to visit us - let's take heart from the example of Mary and her well-meaning and generous sister Martha. 

Show favor, O Lord, to your servants
and mercifully increase the gifts of your grace,
that, made fervent in hope, faith and charity, 
they may be ever watchful in keeping your commands. 

(Collect of Mass)