An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 10:38-42, July 21, 2013
OURS IS A society that values doers. We award the fastest runner, give plaques and pin medals to the contingent that overruns an Abu-Sayyaf camp, take picture of the local politician who inaugurates infrastructural projects, and idealize the parish priest who builds a new church, rectory and multi-purpose hall. We applaud the achiever—The Outstanding Entrepreneur, The Outstanding Farmer, The Outstanding Congressman, etc. In today’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42), Luke presents us two women of different temperaments: one is a doer named Martha, and the other a listener called Mary. When Jesus came to their village (Bethany?), Martha welcomed him at her home, and being a doer, she became busy with the details of hospitality. Just as, in the 1st Reading (Gen 18:1-10), Abraham entertained his guests with all the virtues expected of Bedouin hospitality, so Martha displayed her best in meeting the rules that hospitality required. It is most likely that she, for example, provided water for the physical comfort of Jesus, aside from preparing the meal. Luke does not say it, but if some disciples accompanied him, she would have to prepare not just a simple meal; and one who values people who really work can sympathize with her for voicing out her feelings, “Lord, are you not concerned that my sister has left me to do the household tasks all alone? Tell her to help me” (Luke 10:40b).
To Martha’s complaint that Mary merely seated herself as his feet, while she was distracted with so much serving, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required. Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it” (Luke 10:41b-42). At first blush, it would seem that Jesus’ comment is baffling. After all, Mary never lent a hand in doing the household chores. That one sympathizes with Martha is understandable. Since he was their guest, it was natural for Martha to fret about the demands of hospitality. “If Martha had imitated Mary, Christ would have gone without dinner,” says St Theresa. Moreover, did not Jesus tell us to imitate the Good Samaritan who was concerned with the details of taking care of the victim (10:33-35)? Did not he speak of being of service to others (22:27)? What exactly was Jesus trying to convey?
The pericope should be understood in the light of Luke’s theology of discipleship. For him, to hear and act on the word of God in Jesus constitutes the foundation of discipleship: “Any man who desires to come to me will hear my words and put them into practice” (6:47). And as we noted in the story of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), God’s word is not confined to the Law; among others, it is present in the person in need, and to respond to his need is to act upon the word. But more fundamental than doing the word is listening to it. In the story about Martha and Mary, it seems that Luke does not portray Martha as hostess, despite the impression given and Luke’s description that she was busy with the demands of hospitality. Rather, as in the story of Zaccheus (19:1-10) and the two men from Emmaus (24:13-32), Jesus himself is the host. (After all, Jesus did not come to be served [22:27]). And central to the story is not Martha offering a table of material food but Jesus offering a table of the word. While Martha offers food for daily sustenance, Jesus offers food for eternal life: the word of God.
Small wonder, then, that Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it” (10:42). More basic than acting on the word is, as we noted, hearing it. Mary chose to listen to the word of God in Jesus. That Jesus praised her—this is meant to underline that action, like Martha’s or the Good Samaritan’s, should ultimately spring from listening to God’s word. This is the proper response to God’s offer in Jesus—one’s personal adherence to his person and words. If doing were enough—well, even Communists can take care of people in need; one need not be a Christian to do it. In fact, that is the rallying slogan of activists, revolutionaries and rebels: action for the poor! But that is the heresy of action. The story, then, is not intended to praise Mary at the expense of Martha, but to point out that in discipleship, our action should issue from God’s word and an embodiment of it. Here true discipleship begins. Lending support to this interpretation is the depiction of Mary as seating herself at the Lord’s feet. “To seat at a person’s feet” is actually a New Testament expression for being a disciple of that person. Luke, for example, describes Paul’s education as being seated at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).
For centuries, the story has been used to argue that contemplative life, which Mary supposedly represents, is better than active life, which Martha is said to symbolize, or that religious life is better than the life of the lay person who is involved in the world. That interpretation, however, is very much wide of the mark. The pericope is really about discipleship, which brings true beatitude: “Blest are they who hear the word of God and keep it” (11:28). Hearing and doing the word of God cannot be separated, however. Martha is no less important than Mary, since one cannot exist without the other. Discipleship needs both of them. Which is why Luke gives us portraits of two temperaments; they may be different, but they need one another. Action, however, must result from listening. It is not enough to be like the Samaritan; of more primary is that one first listens to, and is guided by the word of God in Jesus. This point is even accented in the liturgy. Before we partake of the Eucharistic Food (Liturgy of the Eucharist), and before we are sent on mission (“go, the mass is ended,”), we are first served with the word of God (Liturgy of the Word). For how can our life proclaim the gospel if it has not been nourished first by the word?
This recalls what John Paul II says in his apostolic letter, Novo millennio ineunte concerning the priority of listening to the word of God for the Church’s work in the new millennium: “It is above all the work of evangelization and catechesis which is drawing new life from attentiveness to the word of God. Dear brothers and sisters, this development [in devout listening to Sacred Scripture and attentive study of it] needs to be consolidated and deepened, also by making sure that every family has a Bible. It is especially necessary that listening to the word of God should become a life-giving encounter, in the ancient and ever valid tradition of lectio divina, which drawns from the biblical text the living word which questions, directs and shapes our lives. To nourish ourselves with the word in order to be ‘servants of the word’ in the work of evangelization: this is surely a priority for the Church at the dawn of the new millennium.”