July 21, 2019
“A woman whose name was Martha welcomed [Jesus]. She had a sister named Mary, who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha … 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 Luke, 10:38-42
What’s wrong with this picture?
For Jesuit Scripture and theology professor Fr. Francis Alvarez, who spoke yesterday morning at the monthly Bible study of Santuario de San Jose Parish in Greenhills, one good way to deepen and sharpen one’s Bible reflection is to ask what’s strange in the story or verses one is reading.
So, in today’s mass Gospel reading, many will probably wonder why Jesus allowed and even praised Mary in listening to him, instead of letting her help her sister Martha with work. Is contemplating the Lord and his wisdom more important than serving him?
If that comparison were Jesus’ point, then many tasks wouldn’t get done, including efforts to bring the Gospel to the world. Surely, Christ didn’t mean to get in the way of needed labors. And his words to Martha actually bear this out.
Jesus never said that work should be set aside. Rather, he told Martha not to fret over her chores to the point of being bothered that her sister wasn’t helping her. Our Lord knew Martha’s preparations would be done, so her protestations were unnecessary or even resentful. After all, if Jesus could feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish, he could easily speed Martha through her chores.
But why did Jesus say, “There is need of only one thing,” and called Mary’s listening “the better part”?
Fr. Francis made another point about reading Scripture. He said the chapter headings breaking up the text were never in the original writings, but added on by translators and transcribers years, decades, or centuries later. So, in interpreting passages, it is important to read episodes as flowing one after another with no break.
What came before the Martha-and-Mary tale were the sending out and return of the 72 disciples, and the parable of the Good Samaritan. And right after, Jesus taught the “Our Father.” So, spreading the Gospel, including God’s fatherly love for us, was the big thing in this part of Luke’s narrative. But caring for others was certainly not downplayed, but made central to salvation like loving God with all our mind, heart, soul and strength, as the Samaritan story imparted.
The other mass readings affirm and deepen those very messages. In the Genesis story about Abraham solicitously hosting three men, seen as Yahweh Himself and two of His angels, the patriarch is told that his wife Sara, barren for all her past decades of life, would bear him a son after a year — rewarding Abraham’s faith and homage with Yahweh’s assurance of future descendants, as He had promised.
The responsorial Psalm 15 tells of God’s presence among the just, who alone are allowed in His temple. And who is the just? It is he “who harms not his fellow men, nor takes a reproach against his neighbor … Who lends not his money at usury and accepts no bribe against the innocent.” In sum — doing justice to others.
And in the second reading from his Letter to the Colossians, St. Paul tells of his suffering for the Gospel, adding to Christ’s sacrifice. He offers his pains “on behalf of the body, which is the Church … to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.” Again, the Gospel is the thing.
So, is everything right and clear now in this picture? Well, yes and no.
These reflections, though never able to exhaust Scripture’s wealth of wisdom, does mark out the contours of our Lord’s messages, especially about God’s saving truth and His blessings to those who believe in His Word.
But hearing what God means isn’t the same as heeding Him. Many of us are like Martha, “anxious and worried about many things” and missing the “only one thing” needed. Like her and Sara, we busy ourselves with chores, never welcoming the Lord as Abraham did (Sara doubted Yahweh’s promise of progeny), or listening to Jesus like Martha’s sister Mary did.
What’s right and wrong in the Scripture picture lies not just in the verses we read, but more so in the lives we lead. Amen.
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