Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, July 21, 2019
This story was meant to remind Jews of the greatness of their ancestors Abraham and Sarah, and to propose them as models of good behavior. Abraham could sense that his visitors were extraordinary, and he chose to entertain them lavishly. He lacked only one thing, and his visitors promise that to him within a year.
Church elders at Colossae asked Saint Paul to help them settle some disputes. So here Paul sets out his credentials. His authority comes strictly from his imitation of Christ and his insight into God's eternal plan.
Jesus breaks two of his culture's rules in this famous short passage. He teaches a woman and he lets her prefer learning to hospitality.
Our Liturgical Setting: Today's gospel, Luke 10:38-42, is the familiar story of Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary. The hospitality theme links the gospel to the first reading, although the hospitality is secondary to other themes in both cases.
The Literary Background: The detailing of Abraham's obsequious courtesies are meant subtly to give hearers two important notions about the grand status of the patriarch. He was wealthy enough to play the very generous host with the best of his contemporaries, and he was spiritually keen, sensing that his visitors were disguised angels. His life was imperfect, and he needed God, of course; his protracted childlessness is a constant reminder of that. Thus the visitor's prediction that Sarah would have a son within the year is really the point of this story.
Another interpretation: Roger Karban argues persuasively that the lesson really is hospitality. The kernel of his interpretation: If you believed in the "total otherness" of God (i.e., if you believed God was essentially different from the hand-made idols worshiped by your neighbors), then you honored your God by being courteous to those who were like God in their otherness. Those were the strangers and the travelers you encountered. Abram's God had already inserted plenty of strangeness into the patriarch's life. Our natural instincts are to distrust strangers and view them as competitors for scarce resources (Abram and Sarah had escaped a nasty dose of pagan inhospitality in Egypt, and Abram's kinsman Lot, in the company of two of these mysterious visitors, would experience reprehensible inhospitality in Sodom in the next chapter.)
Proclaiming the Passage: Let's stick with the hospitality theme, since it prepares the assembly for the gospel, if only for a secondary theme of the gospel.
Speak the first sentence as if it were a title, and pause. Dan Nelson explains convincingly "The first half of the verse is the chapter heading. Without it the story is about three messengers; with it, these are no messengers, earthly or heavenly, but Yahweh himself. In 18:22 the men (cf. 19:1, "two angels") go toward Sodom, while Abraham remains before Yahweh." So your pause lets the story begin at a logical place, "Looking up, Abraham saw three men ..."
Make sure your hearers can picture Abraham's exaggerated gestures. Overact it, if you will. First he promises water, then food. Then he orders Sarah to bake rolls, and a servant to cook a steer. He adds curds and milk to the menu, then serves as waiter while his guests eat. The lavishness borders on the comic.
Make a pause, that is, (forgive me) a pregnant pause, before the last sentence, the visitor's promise, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son." That's how this passage fits into God's whole scheme to make a people, choose them, and from them to bring forth the Savior.
To prepare to read this, imagine yourself as Abraham telling the story of how you entertained the three divine visitors. You're regaling friends and admirers. How would you sound if you were telling the story in the first person? Recreate the breathless frenzy of one making a meal for drop-in visitors. Make your listeners wait for it as you prepare to announce the promise of a son.
The Historical and Theological Background: Paul did not establish the Christian community at Colossae, but the elders there appealed to him for help in some doctrinal and disciplinary issues (see last week's Notes and next week's for details about these issues). So here and in the following sentences Paul establishes his credentials:
Proclaiming the Passage: Unless you have in your mind an outline like the above, your proclamation may sound like an aimless ramble. Modern punctuation in translations of ancient texts is by nature arbitrary. Supplement the punctuation here by pausing where the logic demands it.
The passage may still be hard for people to understand. You may decide to go for modest, reachable goals, such as one or two memorable phrases. One is "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake ..." Another, "in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ." And a third is "Christ in you, the hope for glory." Say these with clarity and conviction, and some listeners may take away a morsel for meditation and spiritual nourishment that sustains them for a long time.
The Historical and Theological Background: Saint Luke's Gentile audience would have wondered:
We're quite used to reading this gospel passage as an injunction to do contemplative prayer, figuratively sitting at the feet of the Master and letting him speak to our hearts. It's easy to let this story raise the imagine a veiled religious woman adoring the Blessed Sacrament, and say, "Yep, that's what it's about. I have work to do but I have to pray first."
Good advice, that. But Saint Luke meant something else. Remember, the evangelist is explaining how Christianity grew apart from its origins, why Jews were so hostile to it, and how Jewish Christians were moved to welcome Gentiles. So Luke remembers and emphasizes things Jesus did that defied the customs and expectations of his people. And this is a pretty incendiary act on the part of the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. He taught a woman! For a measure of how unprecedented that was and would remain for centuries, see "Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy," by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), or the 1983 American movie derived from it.
And That's How to Proclaim it: Let there be astonishment in your voice when you say the words "Mary, who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak." If you're not the preacher, proclaim this in a way that obliges the preacher to comment on it.
Suppose I'm a bishop giving a retreat to the clergy, and I use this gospel as the kernel of a conference. I could enjoin my fellow servants to sit at the feet of the Master and learn from Him, not getting so Martha-like that we fail to pray. But in addition, we could let ourselves be challenged by Jesus' defiance of two taboos. He teaches a woman, and he teaches that learning is more important than domestic work, even hospitality. A bishop moved by the latter challenge might re-evaluate the diocese's policies on clergy sabbaticals, continuing education, and the pursuit of advanced degrees. (A bishop moved by the former lesson might be an Episcopalian.)
A parish council noticing Jesus' love of learning might establish a library and professionalize its adult education program. Members sharing responsibility for any aspect of their church's mission can ask if they mindlessly reproduce the larger society's low expectations of minorities.
Yes, I was about to post a predictable picture of Martha, Mary and Jesus in a nicely triangular composition. But this is so much richer. At first I mistook the pouting maid for Mary, miffed that she hadn't chosen the better part. Not too concerned with biblical literalism, the young Velasquez has given us a genre painting; do read about it at Wikipedia..Proper credits: By Diego Velázquez - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/work?workNumber=ng1375, Public Domain.
This page updated May 27, 2019