Sunday Sermon for July 17, 2016, the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, year C

Readings: Gn 18:1-10a; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42

Today’s Gospel reading about Martha and Mary has been one of the most misinterpreted and, therefore, misused of all of the passages in the Gospels. It has been used to show that the contemplative life is better than the active life, it has been used to try to dissuade people from doing acts of charity, it has even been used to justify some types of heresy, such as quietism. Needless to say, all of these interpretations are wrong.

In the first reading we have a glimpse of what Middle Eastern hospitality is about. When Abraham sees the three men walking near his tent, he runs to meet them and persuades them to wait in the shade of the tree while some food is prepared for them. Since they did not have refrigerators at that time, everything had to be prepared while the men waited: the steer was slaughtered and prepared, the rolls had to be made and baked. I am sure having fresh food was wonderful, but they had to wait a long time to get it.

When you are a guest in the Middle East, you are revered and protected. The modern portrayals of the violence in the Middle East have left most of us thinking that these people are nothing but barbarians. But this is not the norm. I recall being in Jerusalem at the heights of the Palestinian uprising. We were told that the safest place to be is on an Arab bus (Jews and Arabs did not share the same bus). The reason is because the driver saw you as a guest on his bus and, therefore, took personal care to get you safely to your destination.

Being a guest in someone’s home was a huge thing. The people would drop everything and prepare a meal, no matter what time you arrived. The guest is treated like royalty. This is what we see happening with Abraham in the first reading; it is also what we see taking place with Martha in the Gospel reading. She was not doing something out of the ordinary by serving as she was, she was just being a good Middle Eastern person.

So, why did Jesus condemn what she was doing and commend Mary instead? It was not the serving that was a problem; it was the fact the Martha was seeking attention and wanting Jesus, the guest in her home, to upbraid Mary for not helping her sister. Like the the men (angels) in the first reading, and like anyone in the Middle East, Jesus was very willing to accept Martha’s service. In fact, we can recall the Gospel passage where Jesus has dinner at the home of a Pharisee when the sinful woman cried on our Lord’s feet and wiped them with her hair. Rather than condemn the woman, Jesus points out the failure in the man’s hospitality because he did not provide water for our Lord’s feet or anoint Him on the head upon His entrance to the home.

So, again, we see that it is not Martha’s hospitality that is the issue. In fact, not only is the much maligned Martha a canonized Saint, but she gives us all an example of service that we should follow. Like any of the Saints, she had some imperfections to work out, so we should not be surprised by her pride (who would we be to condemn another of such a thing?).

Today, in our society, people do not even greet one another. Very often people do not even know the people who live next door, let alone down the block. Perhaps some hospitality would be a good thing. While this might be normal fare for people in the Middle East, it is certainly not so for us in the West. Maybe this is where we can apply St. Paul’s principle from the second reading and offer up our attempts at being charitable. I say this because it may actually be rather costly for some of us. Not costly in the monetary sense, but in the personal sense.

For this reason it becomes truly a suffering. Not only will this require some personal investment, but given our society, it will probably be rejected often by others. Imagine if you tried to do today something similar to what Abraham did in the first reading. You would be considered strange or insane.

Like Mary, we need to listen to our Lord which means we need to spend time with Him in prayer. Then, like Martha, we need to act on what we have heard. St. James tells us in his letter that we are to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. So, do not just do what you want to do; listen first and then do whatever He tells you.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit