17 July 2016
One time there was a football competition organized in Paris and one of the African teams arrived to find that no accommodation had been arranged for them. Later the journalists in the daily newspapers in Paris were amazed that this did not constitute any problem. Being non-Africans they found it hard to understand. Fellow countrymen of the football players immediately put them up in their own homes without the slightest problem. Hospitality is so much part of African cultures that they saw it as very normal.
In the first reading today we read about Abraham welcoming three strangers with great hospitality. He doesn’t realise it then but in welcoming them he is welcoming God himself. Later on in the gospels Jesus will say, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the One who sent me”. It seems hospitality and welcome were the ground base of Jesus’ ministry. Where do we stand on this? How often do we advert to this in our daily lives wherever we find ourselves. Is not God’s welcome and hospitality revealed to us by others? How aware are we of this? Maybe a gift to pray for.
The gospel tells us of the welcome given by Martha and Mary to Jesus. Martha is the one who actually welcomes Jesus into her house and appears to be the cook and organiser. Jesus would have appreciated having a good meal after his journey. It was her way of welcoming Jesus. Mary on the other hand welcomes Jesus by sitting at his feet and listening to him. These are two different ways of welcoming someone. What Jesus meant by saying that “Mary had chosen the better part” was that at that particular moment that was the best response for her. At another time she might need to take on the role of cook and organiser.
Here we touch on a deeper meaning in the incident. At the time of Jesus only men sat at the feet of the Rabbis or Teachers of the Law. It was not the place for women. The cultural roles would have been very strict as regards the role and place of women in society. So Jesus is emancipating or freeing women to be equally entitled to do this. Is he not the first real feminist? He is saying that God’s love and word is addressed to everyone, men and women alike.
Mary, and in fact every woman, has the right to listen to the Word of God. House tasks must not suppress that interest. This is a woman’s right which is still not recognised in many cultures even in our so-called developed countries. By his words and deeds Jesus liberates women from a concept which maintains them in a role with no other possibilities to develop themselves.
Jesus then is teaching us that an active life which leaves no time for prayer and listening to God will soon becomes dry and barren. On the other hand a relationship with God that does not bother with the neighbour is nothing but cult worship that may keep a person away from the realities of life.
How can we tell what our priorities are? The best way to recognize our actual priorities is to reflect on our normal behaviour. What gets most of our energy? These are our priorities. It’s the easiest thing in the world to get our priorities wrong. When the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of Chicago, learned that he had terminal cancer he said: ‘I came to realize that what consumes much of our daily life is trivial and insignificant.’ A period of non-doing is essential to nourish the soul. Action and contemplation are not meant to be contrasted. Both are necessary and have to be integrated into life.
According to Gandhi ‘prayer is not just asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is an admission of one’s weakness.’ Maybe the highest form of worship is silence. Because then we have a greater chance to hear God speaking to us. And is not listening a great form of hospitality? We all know when some people are speaking to us or we to them maybe they or us are not really practicing hospitality. We are preparing our replies or are elsewhere in our thoughts.
Ultimately really listening to God in prayer must lead to action. So the listening of Mary would have had little effect if it did not motivate her to action. Likewise if we are really listening to God in prayer it should motivate us too to action. It can be as simple as visiting someone in need in the area where we live.
At a superficial glance it might seem that Mary’s part was easier – all she had to do was sit there and listen – and Martha’s the harder. But on reflection we can see that at least sometimes Mary’s part is the harder of the two. It is not easy to set aside one’s own work and give one’s undivided attention to another person. But it is tremendously fruitful spiritually.
Is there not a Martha and Mary in each of us? As the Book of Ecclesiastes says: “there is a time for everything under heaven”.
“Lord Jesus, give us the gift to truly listen to you speaking to us and at each moment may we be guided by the Spirit “to choose the better part”. Amen.
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA