Saturday, July 20, 2013

Martha, Mary, and Abraham

My deacons are preaching at the parish Masses this weekend. So I have no homily to post. But this Sunday's familiar Gospel reading about Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) - and the Old Testament account of Abraham's famous hospitality that the liturgy pairs with it (Genesis 18:1-10) - are just too good to pass up without saying something.

When I as in seminary, way back when, the well known story of Martha and Mary's sisterly squabble served as a sort of shorthand for stereotyping people (particularly one's classmates) as either "Marthas" or "Marys - workers or non-workers, productive types or early retirement types. One of my novice-mates even spoke of guys who worked to avoid prayer and those who prayed to avoid work! Needless to say, such talk had enormous potential for recriminations and resentment - just like Martha's complaint in the Gospel, Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.

Who, hearing Martha's complaint and feeling her pain, hasn't wondered: What was Mary's problem? After all, somebody had to cook the meal and serve it! Surely, Jesus and his disciples were expecting dinner!

A very important person once said: "Work is the rent you pay for living!" I suspect that's a sentiment Martha might have shared. Perhaps like some modern workaholic, Martha expected to be valued, appreciated, and respected for her work. That's actually a very ordinary expectation. But, as so often happens when Jesus enters the picture, everything changes!

I'm sure Jesus genuinely appreciated Martha's hospitality and did not disparage her efforts on  his behalf. But he could also look beyond all the frenetic activity on the outside to see the anxiety inside. I think he wanted to unburden her of that, lest she miss the whole point of Jesus' presence in her house.

It is, after all, a story about both sisters, both of whom are portrayed (in John's Gospel as well as Luke's) as loving disciples of Jesus. Here, the liturgy gives us a clue, inviting us to compare Martha, who felt so sadly burdened, with the happily hospitable Abraham (whom subsequent Jewish tradition would portray has having his tent open on all sides so he could see anyone approaching and so be ready to offer hospitality).

In Abraham, we find the perfect combination of Martha and Mary - the best of traditional middle eastern hospitality combined with total attentiveness to the person who comes as his guest. Recently, on one of the Gospels we heard Jesus tell his disciples to shake off the dust from any inhospitable community. Here, however, Abraham washes the dust of his visitors' feet, leaving them nothing to shake off.

Then, once the meal has been served, Abraham waits attentively to listen to what his guests have to say. Abraham offered food and drink and shelter and shade. His guests (God) gave him an heir and a host of descendants, among them the Word of God in person! God always has so much more to give us than we can ever do or give him ourselves.

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