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Commentary to the 16th Sunday Ordinary Time–YEAR C

Fernando Armellini - Sun, Jul 17th 2022


"For we are strangers before you, settlers only, as all our ancestors were. Our days on earth pass like a shadow" (1 Chr 29:15). The lesson that Israel has assimilated from the experience of the desert is captured in the words of David; he lived in tents, was homeless, asked hospitality from other peoples, and often was refused (Num 20:14-21) so he has learned to appreciate the welcome.

Rashi, the famous medieval commentator of the Scriptures, reminded his people: ‘Even if the Egyptians threw our newborn males in the Nile, we must not forget that they welcomed us in time of need, during the famine in the time of Joseph and his brothers.’

For Christians, hospitality is a reminder of their status as pilgrims in this world. But it reminds them above all that Christ came into the world as an alien: "He came to His own, yet his own people did not receive him"(Jn 1:11). Today he continues to ask for hospitality: "Look, I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my call and open the door, I will come in to you and have supper with you, and you with me" (Rev 3:20). He seeks to enter into the life of every person, every society, and every institution.

"You did not recognize the time when God visited you (Jerusalem)" (Lk 19:44). We are always hesitant and undecided when Jesus knocks at our door and, if we hesitate before opening it, it is because we sense that his Word will end up turning our whole house upside down. We wish that, at least, he would leave us a corner for ourselves, that he would not go in there, that he would allow us to arrange it to our liking.

To internalize the message, we repeat:? "A rising sun from above will come to visit us."


First Reading: Genesis 18:1-10a

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, Abraham saw threemen standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please donot go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves under the tree. Now that you have come this close to yourservant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way.” The men replied, “Very well, do as you have said.”

Abraham hastened into the tent and told Sarah, “Quick, three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.” He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice steer,and gave it to a servant, who quickly prepared it. Then Abraham got some curds and milk, as well as the steer that had been prepared, and set these before the three men; and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.

They asked Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?” He replied, “There in the tent.” One of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.” —The Word of the Lord.

If we receive an invitation to dine with someone who did not benefit from us, we would suspect, distrust, and begin to speculate. We do not spontaneously think that he is disinterested, that he does not think of his advantage. The kindness, the thoughtfulness, and the attention are usually reserved for friends and relatives and those from whom one hopes to one day receive some favor. Hospitality, based on the calculation of benefits, is not biblical.

The characteristic of authentic hospitality is its gratuity, and of this, two persons are models in Israel: Job and Abraham. The first is said to have built his house with four doors at each cardinal point to prevent the poor from getting tired of finding the entry. As narrated in today's reading, Abraham is remembered for the warm welcome that he reserved for God.

He is sitting at the entrance of the tent and is resting in the heat of the day. Two verses before (Gen 17:26), the sacred text notes that he was circumcised. He is, therefore, ‘convalescent.’ Abraham, nevertheless, as soon as he sees the ‘three men’ standing nearby, runs to meet them. He orders to bring water for them to cool off their feet and makes them sit under a tree. Then he calls Sarah and urges her to cook; he asks her for cakes. He runs to the herd, chooses a tender calf, and gives it to the servant, who immediately prepares it. When everything is ready, he offers the guests sour milk, fresh milk, and the calf.

This improvised menu gave more of a headache to the rabbis because Abraham, offering meat and milk together, violated the most basic rules of Jewish food law. It is forbidden to combine meat and dairy products during the same meal. Of course, this law will be enacted much later, but one can also think that the concern towards the guests (a cup of fresh yogurt is more acceptable than a simple glass of water) makes Abraham ignore the precept.

While they eat, he remains standing, at their side, under the tree. He remains vigilant and attentive, ready to meet their every need, to respond to their every desire. Note the changes: at the beginning, Abraham sits quietly, and the guests are standing; at the end, the positions are reversed: the three men are comfortably lounging on the mat while the landlord is standing to serve them. Before the arrival of the three visitors, everything is calm and quiet in the tent of Abraham. One can only hear the rustling of leaves moved by the breeze in the heat of the day and the cicadas chirping on the oaks. Suddenly the scene comes alive: Abraham, Sarah, and the servants begin to move fast; they hurry and run. Abraham, especially, does not stop for a moment; he stops at the end when the guests are quietly enjoying the food.

The Hebrew language does not like abstract words, so it does not know the term hospitality. It is a concrete language, as the people who speak it. They consider it a sacred duty to welcome, respect, and protect those in need and seeking help. Abraham’s hospitality is pleasing to God and, to show how much he appreciated it, God gave him the greatest favor that the patriarch needed: a son. It is a sign that any form of welcome offered to those in need is most pleasing to God.

Hospitality is synonymous with care, availability, benevolence, and kindness towards the one who asks to be welcomed. Under the guise of the poor—Christian today know—it is God who is asking to be welcomed (Mt 25:31-46) as it happened with Abraham at the oaks of Mamre.


Second Reading: Colossians 1:24-28?

Brothers and sisters: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body,which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. It is he whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. —The Word of the Lord.

Paul, when he writes this letter, is already getting on in years. Few have worked like him. In today's passage, he asserts that, despite all the sufferings, he feels delighted because he knows he has devoted his entire life to the cause of the Gospel. In him, Christ has continued his work: he made himself present among people and offered them his love (v. 24).

In prison, Paul is forced to inactivity, but, reflecting on his own life, he is content to have used it well: he announced to the pagans the mystery hidden for ages and generations and now revealed to Christians (vv. 25-27). What remains for him is to commit his remaining strength to educate every person in rendering everyone perfect in Christ (vv. 28-29).

Gospel: Luke 10:38-42

Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” —The Gospel of the Lord.

During the mass, or in a Bible meeting, when I happen to read this passage, in the end, I carefully scrutinize the faces of those present, trying to guess their reactions. I generally see somewhat embarrassed looks, and there I throw out the challenge: ‘It seems that you do not completely agree with what Jesus said to Martha.’ At this point, the winks, smiles, whispering comments, all hostile to Mary, begin. The disapproval is unanimous even if one does not dare to express it. Others equally dare to ask: how can one scold a woman who works and praise a slacker? It is comfortable to sit in prayer while others are busy working!

A further complication came from the mystical interpretations of this passage. Some cite this to demonstrate the superiority of the contemplative over active life. It says that the nuns and the monks—who in the peace of their cloisters spend their lives reciting prayers—have chosen the better part. Instead, the diocesan priests, absorbed by many parish activities and laypeople dedicated to charitable works, even if they perform sacrifices and renunciations, would be less spiritually perfect.

Understood in this way, the teaching of today’s Gospel—let us face it—is at odds with that of last Sunday’s. There Jesus praised the Good Samaritan who had been busy, today he seems to offer as a model, a woman who does not move a finger to help her sister. The use of this text to contrast the contemplative life to the active is also due to a mistranslation. In the original, Jesus does not say: Mary has chosen the better part, but simply has chosen the good part, that: while Martha gets carried away by agitation, Mary makes the right choice, acts as a wise person. Let us see why.

Luke likes to present Jesus seated at table in someone's home. He accepted the invitations of all: of the "righteous" Pharisees (Lk 7:36; 11:37; 14:1) and tax collectors and sinners (Lk 5:30; 15:2; 19:6). Today we find him in the house of two sisters. Martha, the older, puts herself to work immediately. Her feminine sensibility suggests that a glass of good wine and a plate of tasty meat, served with kindness, show more affection than talking with a person. Instead of working in the kitchen, Mary, the younger, prefers to stay seated to listen to Jesus. At this point, between the two sisters, a quarrel erupts that will end up involving the guest.

Before entering the central theme, we clarify a detail of the story: "Mary sat down at the Lord’s feet to listen to his words" (v. 39). The position taken by Mary is disclosed: she sat down at the Lord’s feet. This is not trivial information because the original text accentuates the detail: "Mary, who was even sitting at the feet of Jesus." It is an expression that has a particular technical value. At that time, it served to indicate the inclusion of a woman among the disciples. It was applied to those who regularly and officially attended his lectures. For example, in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul proudly recalls, "I was educated in the school of Gamaliel" (Acts 22:3); that is, I was a disciple of the most famous of masters of my time.

Is it strange that Mary is presented as a ‘pupil’ of Jesus? Not for us, but, at that time, no teacher would ever accept a woman among his disciples. The rabbis said: ‘It is better to burn the Bible than to put it in the hands of a woman’; and also: ‘Women don’t dare to pronounce the blessing before meals’; and then further: ‘If a woman goes to the synagogue, let her be hidden, not appearing in public.’ This mentality was so widespread that it also infiltrated the early Christian communities. In Corinth, for example, it abided for a time, to this standard: "Let women be silent in the assemblies. They are not allowed to speak. If there is anything they desire to know, let them consult their husbands at home. It is shameful for a woman to speak in Church" (1 Cor 14:34-35).

Since this is the mentality of the time, it is easy to understand how revolutionary was the choice of Jesus to welcome also women among his disciples. And while we are at it, we can recall that even the opening phrase of the story contains the same challenge: "A woman called Martha welcomed him to her house" (v. 38). At that time, it was considered highly improper for a man to accept the hospitality offered by women. Perhaps it is not by chance that Luke does not mention the women’s brother Lazarus who is remembered only in John's Gospel (Jn 11; 12:1-8). It is the beginning of the new world: all the prejudices and discriminations between man and woman—the legacy of a culture and pagan inheritance—are denounced and overcome by Jesus.

A second important observation on this is v. 39: it does not say that Mary is absorbed in prayer or ‘contemplating’ Jesus, but that she listens to his word. She does not listen to the words, the chatter, but the Word, the Gospel. We cannot, therefore, call on her to justify devoutness and religious introspection. Mary is the model of those who gives priority to listening to the Word.

And now we come to the most challenging point in today's Gospel: the enigmatic response of Jesus to Martha (vv. 40-41). If the question is posed in terms of reproach to those who work and praise the idle, it is difficult to agree with Jesus. But is this what he means?

First, it should be noted that Martha is not reprimanded because she works but because she is agitated, anxious, and worried. She is troubled by so many things, and above all, because she is committed to working without having first heard the Word.

Mary is praised, it is true, but not because she is a slacker, pretending not to notice the work in the kitchen. Jesus does not say that Martha is wrong when he reminds her of the concrete commitments; he does not suggest that Mary be crafty and let her sister do all the work herself. He just says that the most important thing, to which priority should be given—is listening to the Word.

Let us make a summary of what we said. We certainly do not care much to know that one day, in the presence of Jesus, the two sisters bickered. Luke mentions this incident as a lesson of catechesis to Christian communities of the past and of today. He knows that there are many people of goodwill in them, many disciples who dedicate themselves to the service of Christ and the brothers and sisters. They are generous with their time, effort, and money. Yet even in this intense and generous activity, there lurks a danger: that much feverish work separates them from hearing the Word and makes them anxious, confused, and nervous, just like Martha. Even the apostolic commitment, communitarian choices, pastoral projects that the Word does not guide will be reduced to vain noises, a broken stirring of pots, and ladles.

Mary has chosen the good part because she listened to the Word. Even the other Mary, the mother of Jesus, is praised for the same reason: she was attentive to the Word (Lk 1:38.45; 2:19; 8:21). It is curious: the models of listening to the Word in the Gospels are all women! Could it be because they are more sensitive and more willing than men to listen to the Master?

The passage ends with the words of Jesus to Martha (vv. 41-42), but it seems unfinished. The dialogue between the two should be continued, but Luke does not report it. He seems to want to draw his readers' attention to another detail that can go unnoticed: the silence of Mary. Throughout the story, Mary does not say a word, not even defending herself, clarifying her position, or explaining her choice. She is silent, and it leads us to assume that her silence is prolonged even beyond, a sign of meditation and internalization of the Word.

Martha now needs to sit at the feet of Jesus to listen to and recover the calm, the serenity and inner peace. While Jesus and Martha continue to talk, I imagine Mary who, deep in thought, quiet and happy, puts on her apron and takes her sister’s place in the kitchen. Martha is generous, diligent, and dynamic, but she made a mistake: she overworked before listening to the Word. That night, Mary—I think—has certainly worked a lot and so showed that the time devoted to listening to the Word of God is not lost or stolen from the serving time for brothers and sisters. Whoever listens to Christ does not forget the commitment to people: they learn to do it the right way ... without agitation.




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