Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: A Place for Everyone
Why do we have such bitter disagreements about the Eucharist, about who should celebrate and who can receive? Are we betraying Christ? Maybe. If it’s any comfort to you, it’s nothing new. Saint Paul himself warned the Corinthians that their Eucharistic celebrations did them more harm than good and that discrimination at the communion table gave them membership in the company of those who crucified Christ (1 Corinthians 11 :17-33).
The story of Martha and Mary that we hear today has been interpreted in various ways as a sign of female discipleship, an affirmation of the value of the contemplative in relation to the active life, as a critique of excessive activity in the ministry and – pretty much whatever you want to suggest.
The creators of our lectionary put this story in dialogue with that of Abraham, Sarah and their visitors. In this story, the Lord appeared to Abraham in the guise of three men. Abraham, the welcoming host, could hardly have gone further in ordering their meal. The three scoops of flour Sarah kneaded together totaled about 60 pounds – before adding water. The steering, of course, was heavier – around 1,200 or 1,300 pounds. With these quantities, one could imagine that Abraham dug a pool where they could bathe their feet!
Clearly, this story highlights Abraham’s hospitality. Our lectionary relegates the rest of the story, Sarah’s astonished and delighted laughter at the visitor’s outlandish promise that she would bear a son, to be heard every two years on a Saturday.
With the legend of Abraham as the backdrop and the good Samaritan as the immediate predecessor of the Gospel, we hear of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary. These sisters appear here and in John 12 as friends and disciples of Jesus.
As Luke tells the story, Martha seems to be the head of the family, the one who welcomed Jesus into their home. Then, while working, Mary sits in discipleship at Jesus’ feet.
Both Martha and Mary were stepping outside the traditional female role. In a house where there is no mention of a man—Luke mentions no brother or husband—Martha acts as the hostess, an alternate version of the hospitable Abraham. Then, while Martha works like Sarah, Mary takes on the Abrahamic role of accompanying and listening to Jesus.
Martha asked Jesus to intervene because the work (daikoneo) was left to him while Mary received the word of Jesus (logos).
This story is unique to the Gospel of Luke. Its closest parallel in the New Testament comes from Acts 6where we learn that as the number of disciples increased, the community chose seven “deacons” to do the table service, freeing the apostolic leaders to preach the word.
Understanding the connection Luke makes between the two incidents, we realize that he may be describing Martha’s service as similar to that of a deacon. The community needed a few to serve as hosts at the table doing diakoneoleaving others free to be itinerant preachers of the word (logos).
As we listen to this story, we must realize that although our translation says that Mary chose the “best”, Luke quoted Jesus saying, “Mary chose the good part.” After the story of the Good Samaritan, it would seem unthinkable to suggest that preaching or the study of the word should take absolute priority over direct service.
We should notice that in this story, both Martha and Mary step out of traditional female roles. Martha’s service is described as literally diaconal; she served as Jesus served. (See Luke 22:26-27.) Mary sat at the feet of her rabbi, a physical position and community role traditionally reserved for men.
Perhaps the deepest conflict reflected here is not the difference between the sisters but the dismay of a community trying to adjust as Christian women took on previously restricted roles of religious leadership.
In fact, almost every time Jesus was a guest or shared a meal, a conflict arose. He constantly pushed accepted boundaries. Jesus scandalized many of his contemporaries because he ignored the rules that restricted anyone’s full participation in the reign of God. According to Jesus, this reign resembles a banquet as lavish as the feast that Abraham offered to his guests and remains open to all who desire it, regardless of their social or religious status.
Today, if we want to enjoy the company of Christ, we must find the balance between action and contemplation. This will allow us to join in Jesus’ rejection of roles, rules, and regulations that put others down. Each time Jesus came to a house, he became its guest. Then he made a place at his table for everyone. The only requirement for fellowship with Christ is acceptance of others whom he invites. We choose the right part when we enjoy his open and lavish banquet.