Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Better Part


Many of us are familiar with the famous 14th-century Russian icon which portrays Abraham’s three visitors as the three persons of the Trinity. Christians have long looked for hints of the Trinity in this familiar story, which highlights how God himself was communicating directly with Abraham in a scene which simultaneously suggests both God’s closeness and his mysteriousness.

Meanwhile Jewish tradition has frequently focused more on highlighting the 99-year old Abraham’s openness to others as expressed in his generous, extravagant hospitality. In Jewish tradition, Abraham is said to have kept his tent open on all four sides, so he could see someone approaching even at a distance and thus rush to offer hospitality, as he does in this scene, offering first water for washing, then bread and meat for food. (Incidentally, there is also a tradition that Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was as hospitable and generous as he was. She took care of women visitors and stayed up at night in her tent making clothes and other items for the poor who might appear at the entrance of her tent.)

The liturgy pairs this familiar story of Abraham’s extravagant hospitality with that of Jesus’ close friend Martha. Several weeks ago, we heard Jesus say the Son of man has nowhere to rest his head, but that seems to have been a bit of an exaggeration, because he clearly did have friends, among them Martha and her family, who obviously had sufficient means to host him in their homes. In all pre-fast-food societies, meals were an important bonding experience, as well as a source of needed rest and nutrition. There was no rest for Martha, however, who burdened with much serving, seems to have resented her sister, Mary’s sitting still, listening to Jesus speak. In any social group, some people eagerly step up to take responsibility, while some seem content to let others do the work. In seminary, we used to refer to the workers as “Marthas” and the shirkers as “Marys.”

As he so often does in the Gospels, Jesus here reverses our normal notions of what is important and valuable, saying somewhat strangely Mary has chosen the better part. Are we to assume that Jesus and his disciples weren’t all that hungry and didn’t care about dinner? I doubt it! I think Jesus wanted and expected to be fed and fully appreciated all the work Martha was doing on their behalf. But, while dinner is definitely important, dinner isn’t everything.

Jesus warns Martha about being anxious and worried about many things – a lesson maybe even more important and timely to us in our workaholic society with its profit-oriented understanding of what counts as worthwhile, with its profit-oriented understanding of time well spent. Jesus surely appreciated Martha’s hospitality – as Abraham’s visitors did. But he, like Abraham’s visitors, was no ordinary guest, and this was no ordinary dinner party. Just as Abraham, after all his frenetic activity, had finally to settle down and wait under the tree to hear what his visitors had to say. So too Martha needed to calm down and learn to listen.

If a time-traveler were to visit us from some earlier era, perhaps the first and most jarring thing he or she might sense would be the sheer noise that envelops us all the time. Modern-life is one big noise-making machine, which weighs us down even more than Martha’s housekeeping burdened her. It is hard for us for find the time or the space to listen – to listen to one another, to listen to anyone at all, let alone listen to God. Much of what passes for politics today is just largely rival factions talking past one another, seldom if ever pausing enough to hear one another and try to listen and learn how the other side sees the world.

Both Abraham and Martha served their guests well, as we are called to serve one another’s needs as well as we can. But the ultimate prerequisite for a life well lived is learning to listen – listening to one another and above all learning to listen to God, who speaks to us in many and various ways, through many intermediaries as with Abraham, and through Jesus his Son as he did with Martha and does here and now with us in his Church.

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY NY, July 17, 2022.


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