16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. Victor Feltes
In this Sunday’s readings, Abraham and Martha play host and hostess to our Lord. The Book of Genesis tells how “the Lord appeared to Abraham… as he sat in the entrance of his tent,” and that Abraham ran to offer his three visitors hospitality. Today’s gospel from Luke recounts how “Jesus entered a village where… Martha welcomed him.” Both Abraham and Martha served the Lord but Martha, unlike Abraham, receives a gentle correction from him. So in what ways did Martha and Abraham’s actions differ?
The pair share similarities. Both of them wanted to put other people to work. Abraham tasked his wife Sarah to make bread rolls and his servant to prepare a tender, choice steer, while Martha sought for her sister Mary to help her. Both Abraham and Martha were a flurry of activity. After running to set Sarah and his servant to work, Abraham fetched curds and milk and the meat that had been prepared and served these to his guests in the tree shade. And Martha was famously “burdened with much serving.” So what are the key differences between them? I would like to highlight three.
First, Martha gives the Lord an command, while Abraham politely invites. She says, “Tell [my sister] to help me.” Abraham also asks things of the Lord but in a different spirit: “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant.” Abraham is respectful and open to whatever the Lord thinks best. When the Blessed Mother brings Jesus the news that the wedding feast of Cana has run out of wine, she does not order him what to do; instead she instructs the servants to “do whatever he tells you.” We are free and invited to ask the Lord Jesus for anything, large or small, but ask him with reverence and trusting that whatever he decides will be best.
A second difference between Martha and Abraham is that Martha gets noticeably stressed out while Abraham, though vigorously active, appears to maintain his peace. “Martha, burdened with much serving,” complains and criticizes. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” But Jesus says to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.” Martha has placed expectations on herself for how she needs to show hospitality, she’s failing to meet these self-imposed standards and it is depriving her of peace. Martha has fallen into an anxiety trap. Anytime we feel like, “I have to do this, but I can’t. I have to, but I can’t,” it’s not true. Jesus does not demand the impossible from us. So either you do not really have to do that thing, or (if God is calling you to do it) with the help of God you can accomplish it. When the yoke you carry on your shoulders feels heavy and grinding, consider whether it may be a yoke of your own making. Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you… and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Some reevaluation may be necessary to exchange your yoke for his.
A third and final difference between Martha and Abraham, is that Martha allows her work to get in the way of her relationship with the Lord. Abraham labors too, but he enjoys the company of his heavenly guests even as he serves and waits on them under the tree. He and his guests converse together, leading to Abraham’s great blessing. One of his guests declares to him, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.” Jesus said Martha’s sister Mary, sharing the Lord’s company listening at his feet, had “chosen the better part and it [would] not be taken from her.” Abraham did not exclude this better portion from his labors. We too should spiritually commune with the Lord throughout our day’s tasks, for he is always near.
Whatever good works we do for Jesus are not nearly as important as who we are for each other. Jesus says that at the Judgment, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” Do not merely serve and obey Jesus, on the level of a slave. Love him as your dearest friend, for he is already the greatest friend towards you. The one thing needed is Jesus Christ.
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