YEAR C: HOMILY FOR THE 16TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
HOMILY THEME: GOD DESIRES A LISTENING EAR
BY: Fr. Mike Olumba
HOMILY: (Genesis 8: 1-10a; Luke 10: 38-42)
Each time one reads this passage of the gospel about Mary, Martha of Bethany (sisters to Lazarus) and Jesus their visitor, one has some difficulties. One asks if there is actually no mistake here in reporting the event and the words said. How can Jesus’ reaction be true? And how can this be a model to be emulated?
Here we have the two sisters: Mary and Martha. Martha is so much overtaken by the running around and things to do, to cook and to prepare. She has the right to ask for her sister’s help, in order to get all ready and to care of Jesus their visitor.
And Jesus? It appears he does not even recognise that. Instead he praises Mary, who was doing nothing except sitting down at his feet and listening to him. Most people would surely praise Martha for she was doing something to take good care of their visitor just like Sarah did for the three visitors that she and Abraham received (Genesis 8: 1-10a).
Worse still/Lest I forget, on this Sunday when this gospel reading is taken, the first reading praises in glowing colours the hospitality of Abraham and his wife to their visitors and how they were rewarded with the promise of Isaac (Genesis 8: 1-10a). In the gospel, Jesus refuses to praise Martha for running around to care for him and to show him hospitality (as Sarah did). Rather, he says that “the person who sits at my/his feet doing nothing, practically nothing has chosen the better part, and no one will take it away from her, not even me”.
The answer given by Jesus would not be very clear except if one fixes his eyes on the question or the demand made by Martha: “Lord, does it not concern you that my sister left for me the whole work to do? Tell her to come and help me” (after all, I am doing this for you). Martha seemed to be overwhelmed. And truly, she was not happy to see Mary comfortably seated at the feet of Jesus only listening. Martha is just confused in all this. She is overstretched.
Jesus hears the question and understands it as a cry for help: “Lord, I can do no more. I am overwhelmed!” “Martha, Martha, you really overwork yourself for many things. I see that you work so much. To worry so much so as to take care of me is good. But you need not do yourself much harm. You do not have to over task yourself today. I have always eaten here before. I know how much you care and cared. I am not to count it against you today if you failed to do that which you have always done for me today. Jikolata onwe gi/Recollect yourself! Then I can help you just as I am helping your sister Mary. She is not really lazy but having listened at my feet as she is doing, she will be stronger to face her daily tasks tomorrow! Besides, the time for my Passion/Suffering, my Passage/Pasch/Death is close by. I do not have much time and much desire now for eating and drinking. I just want to speak and unburden my heart. I want to teach all that I have to teach now. I need nothing now more than just students with good listening ears. Just forget all the running around for me for the moment please. Give me your time; yes I mean your time just by listening to me Martha. This is not really an instruction for everyday life and every time. It is just for today. I am not asking for so much!. Mary has done that already. She has chosen the better part. No one will take that away from her!”
Among the many choices and options we have today before us, we run the risk today sometimes forgetting that which is important. We run the risk of forgetting to choose something better as opposed to the ‘good’ or to the ‘banal’ and the ‘ordinary’. We run the risk of forgetting to choose something better offered to us by God. Jesus wants that we, just like Mary, should take our place at his feet; that we look up to him and that we listen to him. He wants us not to get lost like Martha in activities without reflection. Martha is the active type, that can sometimes in the hassles of daily life get totally lost without time for reflection; but the fact is that reflection makes our activities better.
Just as Mary has done, she opened to Jesus not only the door of their home but also her ears, the door to her heart. She also gave him her time and her attention. She took to heart each word that came from his mouth. This is considered as very important by Jesus. At his feet, we learn everyday every time something new, something that betters our life and our daily activities. Thus, if we are not careful, in the cacophony of daily living and her activities, we may miss this other aspect of human life: Looking at the face to see the pains and the burden in the heart of our visitor or interlocutor and to understand their real needs.
Jesus is not by this his answer telling us not to care anymore for our visitors. He is not asking us not to give them something to eat. He is rather asking us by this to listen to them and to check also the real need of our visitors instead of taking our presumptions as the model to follow. Perhaps, as we engage in hospitality and hospitable acts, we still need to look at the faces and into the hearts of our guests perhaps to see what really their utmost need is at each moment.
Sometimes in giving kola nuts to visitors, one looks at the face sometimes. As the visitor eats the kola you recognise that he is not happy but sad. One finds out that there is a deeper worry that would not be overcome with eating and drinking. One finishes with omume banyere kola/the rites associated with kola and its presentation, and then you ask: “Is everything alright? Your face does not seem bright as always. What is the problem? What can I do to help?” And it would be misunderstood as bad upbringing if you shared and ate kola with someone but failed to see the sadness hidden plainly in his face as in broad daylight. There is thus perhaps something deeper: Listening to one who wishes to unburden the heart.
In the book, The Concubine by Elechi Amadi, one of the best in African Writers’ Series, one night Ekwueme overwhelmed by the nagging of his wife Ahuruole, and his own incapacity to set his marriage in order, left to see his friend the hunchback and the village jester, Wodu Wakiri (Nwodu Nwakiri). At his arrival, the boisterous and ever-joking Wodu wanted to crack jokes as usual, but they were not getting through to Ekwueme. Wodu looked into Ekwueme’s eyes and saw sadness, real sadness. After a few questions asked and responses given, he understood that it was the perpetual problem within Ekwueme’s marriage and with Ahuruole the wife. He got the solution at least for the day. “He dipped his hands under his bed and brought out two okwo (ekwe) musical instruments. He gave one to Ekwueme and held one himself. They started making music. They sang about marriage and its difficulties; about the futilities of marital life, its promises and its deceptions etc”. According to Elechi Amadi, “their song did not disturb the villagers. Rather it lured them to sleep” and probably unburdened Ekwueme’s heart.
Back to the homily: Perhaps, it is this sadness or the sign of a heart filled with a longing for a listening ear that Martha failed to see. It is highly possible that it is this desire to unburden his heart with the end around the corner that may have made Jesus prefer the listening ears given to him by Mary to the running around to prepare food etc. preferred and undertaken by Martha.
Perhaps it is a way of saying to us; “Listen to me today as I teach. If you do, you will serve the food and drinks better to my other brothers and sisters tomorrow. As for my brother and sisters that would need your services and hospitality, you would always have them with you every day till the end of time. What I desire today is a listening ear and an understanding heart. Mary has done that already. She has chosen the better part. No one will take that away from her”.
Dearly beloved, let us desire to receive that which really counts. We are here today because listening to God’s Word and celebrating the Sacrament counts for us. “Only one thing is important!” (Lk 10, 42). Only Jesus Christ, seen and felt in the Word and in the Sacraments is important. He must be in the/the centre of our life. After all, for St. Paul, it is not what we do that counts most but what the Lord has given us and what he does in our life that counts. What counts is what the Lord has given us both in his Word and in his Sacrament. If we look upon him, and if we listen to him, we shall be filled with his light. This light will enlighten our thoughts and make better and permeate even what we call banal daily activities. Then, we can say that we have surely chosen the better part. And that would never ever either here or hereafter be taken away from us-Amen!
Fr. Mike Olumba