July 21, 2019: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st 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 three men 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 do not 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 your servant,
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 first book of the Bible derives its name from the Greek rendering of chapter 2, verse 4: “These are the generations (genesis) of the heavens and the earth.” Tradition holds that Moses is the author; that is, he wrote down the oral traditions which had been passed down through the preceding centuries.

Today’s reading follows a classic story form that was well known in the ancient Near East: heavenly beings come in disguise to a humble home, receive hospitality from those living there, and reward that family with the announcement of the future birth of a child.  Israel made use of this form in telling the story of the promise of a child to Abraham, whose name means “father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5).

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the terebinth

A terebinth is a small tree native to the Mediterranean region that yields a resinous liquid. It is sometimes called a turpentine tree.

of Mamre,

The meaning is uncertain, but Mamre is thought to be a place near Hebron.

as he sat in the entrance of his tent, while the day was growing hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing nearby.

Stories in this part of Genesis describe the presence of God in a variety of ways.  The previous verse states that the Lord appeared to Abram, but here it refers to three men.  Later, in Genesis 18:22 (not included in this passage), it states that one of the three men is “the Lord,” the other two are angels.  Scripture scholars suggest that this variety is a way to describe the mysterious nature of God’s presence.  The God of Abraham is a transcendent God, but at the same time a God who dwells among the people.

When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; 

The context and theme of this story is nomadic hospitality, which came with a certain protocol to be followed.

Since all strangers who came out from the desert were potential enemies, it was important to treat them as honored guests.  In this way, a relationship of cordiality would be established at the outset, and the host would have the upper hand.

and bowing to the ground,

Ancient Near East hospitality demanded this action; it is nothing more than common courtesy.

he said: “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not 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 your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way.”

Abraham not only goes out to greet them, he compels them to accept his hospitality.  It would be a breach of etiquette if he did not act in this way.

“Very well,” they replied, “do as you have said.”

Similarly, it would be a breach of etiquette if the guests refused his overtures.  Refusal by either side could be properly interpreted as a threat to the safety of the other.

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 he got some curds and milk, as well as the steer that had been prepared, and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.

Upon receiving guests, the host was bound to refresh them and to offer them food and drink, the quality of which indicated the degree of importance the host accorded the guest.  Abraham is portrayed here as the perfect host.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

A very interesting turn of events.  First, if these men were strangers, how did they know Sarah’s name?  The fact that she is named rather than merely identified as Abraham’s wife shows her significance.

Secondly, this is a massive departure from protocol.  In a patriarchal situation such as this, it would be presumed that the man’s wife and the servants would be out of sight, but responsible for the meal.  Inquiring about her violates the conventions of hospitality, as guests have no right to personal family information, particularly information about women.  This could be taken as a challenge to Abraham’s authority as the male head of the family.

“There in the tent,” he replied.

The fact that Abraham responds without hesitation is also very unconventional.  This breach of etiquette is probably a narrative device that alerts those hearing the story to the remarkable event about to take place.

One of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.”

One of the visitors, a perfect stranger, foretells the birth of Sarah’s son. Earlier, when Abraham said that his steward would be his heir because he had no children, the Lord said: “No, that one shall not be your heir; your own issue shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:4b).  Now, God is announcing the fulfillment of that promise.

The fact that the child is identified as her son (rather than Abraham’s) signals that Sarah will play an important role in the life of her son.

All of this points to the extraordinary nature of the yet unborn child: his birth is mysteriously foretold by strangers who appeared from out of the desert and who not only know his mother’s name but identify him with her.

2nd 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.

Last week we began a four-week study of the Letter to the Colossians. Recall that Paul was using this occasion to address false teachings in that community and remind them of the absolute supremacy of Jesus the Christ. Today, Paul tells us his role in proclaiming the gospel.

Brothers and sisters: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,

That Paul rejoices in these sufferings should not surprise us, for he believes they will benefit the Colossian Christians, whom he loves.

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,

This statement has generated much discussion across the generations. Remember, last week Paul taught that Christ has already reconciled the whole world to God: “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him…” (Colossians 1:19-20a).  Therefore, Paul is not here suggesting that Jesus’ redemptive acts were somehow incomplete, unfinished, or ineffective.  Rather, he is teaching that ministers of Christ, who carry on Jesus’ ministry, also participate in his suffering.

For a deeper understanding, we can examine the Greek terminology of Paul’s text.  Paul claims that the sufferings (páthēma) of his own flesh (sárx) fill up what is lacking in the afflictions (thlípsis) of Christ’s body (sōma). The vocabulary itself indicates that the body of Christ is clearly something other than his physical being.  As Paul goes on to clarify, it is the church.

The Greek title used here, “the Christ,” includes a definite article, suggesting that this is not an alternate name for Jesus the Lord but a reference to the long-awaited Messiah. Furthermore, thlípsis is never used in scripture as a reference to the sufferings of the historical Jesus.  It refers to the tribulations that, according to Jewish eschatological thinking, will precede the coming of the Messiah.

Therefore, Paul is saying that his own physical sufferings contribute to what have come to be known as the “woes,” or “birthpangs of the Messiah.”

Paul believed that, joined to Jesus, his own sufferings had merit and could be seen as part of the sufferings that would inaugurate the messianic age (a future coming according to Jewish tradition; a present as well as future reality in the Christian faith).  This is why Paul can claim to rejoice, regardless of the agony he might be enduring.  His suffering (and ours) is hastening the time of ultimate eschatological fulfillment.

Note that these sufferings are substitutionary: “on behalf of.”

“In regard to this is that which in another place the very same apostle says: ‘I now rejoice in sufferings for you, and I full up those things which are wanting of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh.’ He did not say ‘of the afflictions of me’ but ‘of Christ,’ because he was a member of Christ and in his persecutions, such as it was necessary for Christ to suffer in His whole body, even Paul was filling up Christ’s afflictions in Paul’s own portion.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 416), Homilies on the Gospel of John 108,5,1]

of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me

Paul is a minister, a servant (diákonos) with the responsibility of stewardship (oikonomía).  Since the term stewardship is derived from “household” (oíkos) and “rule” (nómos), we can say that Paul understands his ministry as the service of management of the goods of the household of God.

to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. 

Paul’s stewardship consists in preaching the word of God, specifically the doctrine of salvation, to the Gentiles.  He considers this a mystery hidden for ages.

“And with reason he calls that a mystery, which none knew except God. And from where hid? In Christ; as he says in the Epistle to the Ephesians (3:9). … But now it has been manifested, he says, ‘to his holy ones.’ So we know that it is altogether of the dispensation of God. ‘But now it has been manifested,’ he says. He does not say ‘is come to pass’ but ‘has been manifested to his holy ones.’ So that it is even now still hid, since it has been manifested to his holy ones alone.” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. A.D. 400), Homilies on the Epistle to the Colossians 5]

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.

He ascribes no blame to those Jews or Christians who reject the idea that Gentiles can be saved without having first to convert to Judaism.  The Gentiles are included along with the other holy ones, for according to Paul, all those who have been baptized have been transformed in Christ; they are the saints.  Having tasted the glory of Christ at the time of their baptism, they await in hope the fullness of that glory.

It is he whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.

Ultimately the real message that Paul proclaims is Christ the risen Lord.  To borrow from the great Jewish rabbi Hillel: Everything else is commentary! However, commentary is necessary for us to understand the specific impact of the message in every time and place.  As steward of the household, it is Paul’s responsibility to make sure that in the domain of his ministry, everything is perfect.

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.”

Today’s gospel reading is a well-known story that has annoyed many a housewife: the story of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary.  As we will see, Jesus once again breaks with the strict social conventions of his time.

Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.

Right off the bat, the story takes on extraordinary circumstances.  Martha, a woman, welcomes Jesus, indicating that she is the homeowner.  That a woman could be mistress of a house and invite a man into her home would be almost inconceivable in the patriarchal society of first-century Palestine.

Further, it was very unusual for an itinerant preacher to accept the hospitality of a woman. Nevertheless, Jesus’ visit is characterized by graciousness: he treats the sisters as two responsible persons who could run their own lives.

Side note: More than any other Gospel, Luke makes a point of picturing Jesus in people’s homes and accepting their hospitality, just as he instructed his disciples to do (Luke 9:4).  By the time Luke wrote his Gospel, around 85 AD, Christian churches were meeting in homes, and many women were offering them hospitality.

She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet 

For Mary to sit at Jesus’ feet (the posture of a disciple; see Luke 8:35; Acts 22:3), and for him to allow her to do so, was also controversial.  Typically she would be expected to busy herself with serving.

listening to him speak.

The language here for speak is a technical phrase that connotes either the fundamental proclamation of the good news or the instruction that flows from it.

Merely conversing with a woman like this would have been considered by other rabbis of the time to be very unbecoming, not to mention the Talmudic view that it was “better to burn the Torah than to teach it to women.”  This is a truly controversial scene.

For her part, Mary is being instructed as a disciple and is actively listening, which is hard work.

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.”

Martha is not only overwhelmed with the traditional household duties of a woman, she is also fulfilling the customary responsibilities of hospitality, which would have fallen to a man (as described in our first reading).  Her duties prevent her from being able to listen and attend to Jesus’ words.

Note that the text does not say Martha wishes to sit at the feet of Jesus, it states that she wants her sister to share in the responsibilities of service.  Showing a familiarity that suggests she had known Jesus for a long time, she actually rebukes him for his apparent indifference and instructs him on how to remedy the situation.

There is no instance in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus criticizes one person at the invitation of another.  Whenever one finds fault with someone else, Jesus tries to get that person to look first at his/her own faults.  Jesus earlier taught the crowds, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” (Luke 6:41).  Martha has found fault with her sister, but has not found any fault with herself.  The fault of Martha isn’t that she is working, but that she is obsessed with working.

The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.

The word used here for serving (diakonía) came to have specific ministerial connotations.  Martha is ministering to Jesus in one way, Mary in another.  Jesus treats both sisters lovingly and accepts each person’s gift as that person has offered it.  Martha’s gift is her hospitality, and Jesus accepts that gift.  Mary’s gift is her presence and attention; Jesus accepts that gift also.

There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Jesus points out to Martha that it is her behavior, not Mary’s, that is lessening the gift of hospitality that Martha wants to offer.  He is not being ungrateful for her hard work, but merely pointing out that Martha’s serving seems to have become more important than her guest.

True hospitality considers what the guest needs and desires.  Jesus has left the press of the crowds he was teaching, and would soon return to them.  What he wants most of all is an oasis of peace and quiet.  Mary understood this, and Martha didn’t.

Family obligations, work responsibilities, duties of hospitality: all of these are important and good.  However, none are more important than spending time with Jesus and listening to his word.

Given the interconnectedness of this story in Luke’s gospel with the parable of the Good Samaritan (the story of the Samaritan opens with the words “a certain man,” today’s reading immediately follows and opens with the words “a certain woman”; both stories are unique to Luke), it should not escape us that both accounts feature people of God choosing between two important priorities.  In both cases, we see that attention to the person in need supersedes the fulfillment of other responsibilities, regardless of how important or noble those responsibilities may be.

Connections and Themes

The readings for this Sunday might all be seen within the theme of openness.  Abraham was open to receive the heavenly visitors, Martha opened her home to Jesus, Paul was open to the sufferings he endured for the sake of the Church.

Hospitality.  Two weeks ago we heard of the seventy-two disciples being sent out to preach and heal.  Jesus instructed them to accept the hospitality offered to them and, when it was not forthcoming, to shake the dust of that town off of their feet.  In today’s readings, the circumstances are reversed: here we see the People of God offering the hospitality rather than receiving it, first Abraham and then Martha.

In both cases, we see how important openness is because those to whom the hospitality was offered were divine visitors in human form.  We can never be sure under what guise God will come: Martha may have known that it was the Lord she was entertaining, but initially Abraham did not recognize the true nature of his visitors.  For us, it could be the person on the street who asks for directions, or the one who comes to our place of work to engage the service we provide.  It may be the friend who comes to dinner or the co-worker who acts in ways we did not expect.  God comes into our lives in unexpected ways, and we must have an open attitude of hospitality if we are to receive the blessings that might come with such visits.

Tasks versus people.  If our hospitality is genuine, we will share the best we have to offer.  We will give of our time and we will do what we can to meet the needs of those who come to us.  Perhaps one of the greatest challenges disciples face today is finding the right balance between the tasks we have to accomplish and the needs of the people we serve.  The tension between Martha and Mary illustrates how difficult this is.  Martha was busy with the legitimate responsibilities of hospitality, but her complaint showed she was more concerned about her duties than her guest.  With all the responsibilities we carry today, it is so easy to lose sight of the people involved.  Parents can be so overwhelmed with the demands of making a living that they have little time for those for whom they are making the living.  Doctors can be so intent on curing the illness that they are insensitive to the fears of the one who is ill.  Pastors can be so overworked with administrative duties that they have little time for pastoring.  All these duties are important, but not as important as the people for whom we do them.  How hospitable are we to the people who come to us?

Fill up the sufferings.  Throughout these Sundays of Ordinary Time, we have considered many of the challenges that face disciples, and this Sunday is no exception.  We know that we cannot lay aside the various responsibilities of our lives in order to sit with Mary at the feet of Jesus.  However, we cannot allow ourselves to be held captive by these responsibilities, regardless of how legitimate they may be.  And so we continue to struggle; to carry our burdens for the sake of the people we serve; to serve the people in our care realizing we will probably not be able to accomplish all of our tasks, or at least not as well as we would like.  This is the struggle that faces disciples today.  It is in this way that the reign of God struggles to be born.

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