Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year "C") July 18, 2010, CHOOSING THE ONE THING NEEDED, "THE BETTER PART" [Texts: Genesis 18:1-10a; [Psalm 15]; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42]
Pope Gregory the Great read in the story of Jesus' visit to the home of Martha and Mary the superiority of the contemplative life over the active one. Other interpreters have seen Martha and Mary representing, respectively, the present world and the world to come, Judaism and Christianity, justification by works and justification by faith. At its core, the story is a tiny jewel, exquisitely told by Luke, to help disciples sort out priorities in their lives.
Recent commentators, who tend to focus on the narrative links Luke has made in the overall structure of his work, stress the connections between this story and the parable of the Good Samaritan which preceded it.
Just as that parable began with "there was a certain man", this tale begins with "there was a certain woman". The parable emphasized love of neighbour as it tried answer the question, "who is my neighbour?"
This story implicitly takes up the question of love of God, which we might phrase in words such as the following, "how and where may I manifest love of God?"
In the Good Samaritan parable Jesus helped clarify the person-to-person aspect of God's demand that disciples love others. Now the disciples' attention is turned to the vertical dimension of loving God, which Luke expresses as a preoccupation with the Word of God brought by Jesus ("Mary ... sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what He was saying")
The parable, then, joined with the dialogue between Martha and Jesus, links the dimensions of loving God and loving one's neighbour so that, together, they make up the one, great commandment of the law.
We learn from the story of Martha and Mary that the person who loves God must be taken up with His Word. Disciples discover this by listening to Jesus, as Mary did. Even when a person is apparently given over to serving within the Kingdom--as Martha was--the practicalities of life can seduce one away from total attention to the things of God ("Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things").
Jesus gently reproached Martha before setting her straight. There is a difficulty with His message, because the manuscript traditions differ on what Jesus said. Some manuscripts read, "few things are necessary, (or) only one", other manuscripts read (as in our NRSV translation), "there is need of only one thing".
In any case, what constitutes the "one" or "few" things needed? Some interpreters think Jesus is preaching simplicity of life. Others think the issue has to do with hospitality. Only one or a few dishes are needed for a simple meal, but also attention must be given to the guest.
In this view, Mary has chosen to attend to the guest by conversation, while leaving her sister to do everything needing to be done in the kitchen. Faced with these two choices, Mary has claimed for herself the better task ("Mary has chosen the better part").
More likely, however, the meal context has simply been employed to illustrate a spiritual truth. Life in the world causes disciples to be stressed and fragmented. Attending to the Word of God, however, gives one an integrating power that makes a singleness of vision possible.
It is important that attention to the cares of this world--even in service to God's Kingdom--do not distract from the central need disciples have. They need to hear the Word of God by listening in prayer at the feet of the Lord Jesus ("Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her").
The story of Abraham playing host to God in the guise of three mysterious strangers is a story rich in subtle details that exemplifies Hebrew narrative style at its best.
Abraham's dozing is contrasted with the purposefully journeying men. Then, Abraham's frantic preparations are followed by the commanding silence of the men and their probing questions about Sarah. God, in the person of one of the travellers, promised to return "in due season" when elderly, barren Sarah would be blessed with a son.
Paul's contemplation revealed what underlies Christian existence in this world: "the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory".