BY: Fr. Gerald M. Musa



These three scripture passages are connected in some ways. The first is from the book of Genesis about Abraham who cheerfully welcomed some strangers- offering them water, food, and accommodation. In the end, Abraham knew they were angels when they promised him that by this time next year his wife Sarah would conceive and bear a son. Abraham experienced the presence of God in the visit of the angels and their promise to him. In the second passage from the letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul rejoices in his suffering for the sake of those he was working for. He found joy in his ministry and he found joy in service and stewardship. Paul experienced the presence of Jesus in his suffering and most particularly he saw the presence of Jesus in those to whom he offered his stewardship. He made himself a home for God’s grace. The Gospel reading from St. Luke offers narrates how Martha and Mary encountered Jesus and were excited to have him stay with them. They offered hospitality to Jesus in the same spirit with which Abraham offered hospitality to the angels that visited his house.

Martha was so much taken up by serving the Lord that she almost forgot the purpose of his presence among them. In the following paragraphs, the Scholarly Spiritan, Fr. Munachi E. Ezeogu, explains the story of Mary and Martha with this beautiful illustration:

“A certain Catholic missionary was doing a very good job in his mission village in the African interior. In a few years, he had baptized many people and built a church, a school, and a health centre. Owing to his restless work schedule he took ill and had to be flown back to his native country in Europe for treatment. After many months he was well enough to return to Africa. To his surprise and utter disappointment, he discovered that the whole village had abandoned his church and turned to a local evangelical preacher. Even the church he built now had an evangelical signboard in front of it. “What went wrong?” he asked himself. How did his flourishing mission collapse overnight? “What did I do wrong?” he asked his former church members. The truth hit home one day when a woman said to him, “Father, you did a lot for us. You gave our children clothes and built up our village. But there was one thing you did not do. You did not bring us to know Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.” Doing the work of the Lord is great. But knowing the Lord of the work comes first.
The missionary was so concerned with the work of the Lord that he forgot to teach his people how to relate with the Lord of the work. We see in Martha someone busy with the work of the Lord, and Mary as a person who is more interested in knowing the Lord of the work. For Martha, the priority is service, for Mary the priority is relationship. Like the missionary in our story, Martha must have been shocked to hear the Lord himself saying it is a relationship with him that comes first, for, without it, our service is meaningless.
There are people who see Martha in this story as the material girl and Mary as the spiritual one. The association of Martha with materialism is easier to make in the English language where the name Martha seems to rhyme with the word “matter.” But this way of thinking in terms of separation between spirit and matter does not belong to the gospel of Luke. Rather Luke presents Martha and Mary as two sisters who are both interested in the Lord, two women who both want to please the Lord. The difference between them is the manner in which they go about trying to please the Lord. Martha takes the way of service or working for the Lord. Mary takes the way of relationship or being with the Lord.
Mark tells us that when Jesus called the apostles to follow him, he called them for a dual purpose: “to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message” (Mark 3:14). The need, on the one hand, to be with the Lord, to know him, to fellowship with Him and be nourished by his word and, on the other hand, to do the Lord’s work, to serve the Lord in others, to proclaim his message of love in word and deed, brings us to a conflict. Which one should enjoy the priority? How much of my time should I devote to being with the Lord, to prayer and listening to God’s word, and how much time to doing the work of the Lord? Despite the urgent need to throw ourselves into the work of the Lord, it is only logical to say that my relationship with the Lord of the work comes before my involvement with the work of the Lord.
The point of the story of Jesus with Mary and Martha is not to invite us to choose between being a Martha or a Mary. The true disciple needs to be both Martha and Mary. The point of the story is to challenge our priorities so that we come to see that fellowship with the Lord, being with the Lord, and hearing his word should always precede the work we do for the Lord. Do we have a program of daily fellowship with the Lord? Many people fulfill this by assisting daily in the Eucharist where they can also hear the word of God. Others schedule a holy hour or quiet time when they can pray and read the word of God. Whatever way we fulfill this need, today’s gospel invites all Christians first to be a Mary who sits with devotion at the Lord’s feet listening to his word, and then also to be a Martha who throws herself with energy into the business of serving the Lord.

The story of Mary and Martha teaches us to be hospitable and to welcome Jesus in our hearts. He says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and eat with him, and he with me.” The story of Abraham teaches us to be hospitable to others. The letter to the Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

The personalities of Martha and Mary represent the two lines of spirituality in Christian life, the active and the contemplative. A balanced combination of contemplation and active life is relevant for a fruitful life. As we actively carry out the work of the Lord like Mary, we must strive to develop a deep relationship with the Lord of the work, like Mary.

Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42; 16th Sunday of the Year C

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