ACTA LECTIONARY COMMENTARY
Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Year of Luke
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A reading from the book of Genesis 18:1-10
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 14:2-5. R/. v. 1
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
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Did you know that in 1564 Pope Pius IV prohibited the reading of the Bible in any of the many vernacular translations that were flooding the European market at the time? To read any such required papal permission. More especially, can you recall when that prohibition was annulled? The Great Bible of 1539, edited by Miles Coverdale and commissioned by that paragon of virtue Thomas Cromwell, was placed in every church in many dioceses. Much of it was based on the Latin Vulgate with some help from Martin Luther’s German translation. It would have come under the Pope’s interdict. So would the English translation called the Geneva Bible (1560), produced in that city by Coverdale and others who fled the country during the reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558). The Geneva Bible was the Bible of William Shakespeare, not the King James (Authorised Version, to give the KJV its official title) of 1611. The Catholic Rheims New Testament, based on the Latin Vulgate, was published in 1582 and was re-issued with the Old Testament in 1609. A revised edition with notes was produced by Bishop Challenger (1691-1781). When Cardinal Griffin wrote a preface to the edition of 1956 he commented that vernacular versions of the Bible “have been in existence from the 8th century” and that “the printing press “was used by the Church to make the Scriptures more widely known”. Obviously nobody told Pope Pius IV nor the Catholic community I grew up in.
Until the Second Vatican Council and in the days of the old Roman Missal, readings at Mass were exceedingly sparing in its use of Scripture, especially with the Old Testament, so that Catholics were and remain ill-informed on what the Bible is and what it contains and how to begin to set about understanding its contents.
For instance, why was the Hebrew Bible written? Why were the Gospels and letters in the New Testament written?
These are matters of the greatest importance in order to understand what the Bible is about.
Vive la difference?
If, in these days of modern slavery, you were to look for what the Bible has to say about slavery, you would be somewhat bewildered. For slave laws concerning slavery within the ancient Israelite communities are confusing. Such laws are found in Exodus 21:1-11, Leviticus 25:39-46, and Deuteronomy 15:12:18. Especially confusing are the laws concerning male and female Hebrew slaves, that is, laws about enslaving your own people. The Book of Exodus has different laws concerning male and female slaves, whereas Deuteronomy insists that they must be treated equally. The plain fact is the different laws cannot be reconciled.
Every day many Christians pray the Psalms. But how many of us who pray them realise that prayers such as we find in the Book of Palms were part of a common celebration and devotion to the gods of Egypt, of Mesopotamia, and of the Canaanite people who lived in the land alongside the Hebrew peoples? We know many such poems for a treasure trove of wonderful hymns was discovered in Ugarit (on the coast of modern Syria) and some go back to 1400 B.C., a thousand years before the Hebrew Bible took something like its modern shape.
Of course some will say, “So what?” But if we appreciate that the poetic techniques evident in the Psalms come from their pagan neighbours, that words and phrases, imagery and even some theology come from prayers uttered to the gods of other peoples, we will learn at least one great lesson. We will learn that some of our prayers come from the hearts of people whose gods are not ours, yet they express hopes and fears that fill our Jewish and Christian thoughts every day. We might learn that many of our Psalms are not only prayers for all seasons. They open to us an invitation to pray with people of other traditions; they teach us to join our prayers with all who raise they voices to the heavens and recognise that there we are looked upon by One who loves all of us. To coin a phrase, those who pray together, stay together.
St John’s Gospel, for very important reasons, insists that the so-called Cleansing of the Temple when Jesus drove out money-changers and those who sold oxen and pigeons from the
Temple precincts, took place at the very beginning of his ministry (John 2:3-22). Yet Mark, Matthew, and Luke agree that this is wrong and that the event occurred at the end of his life (see Mark 11:15-18; Matthew21:12-16; Luke 19:45-46 who records the matter in one sentence). Who to believe? And, as I hope everyone knows by now, we cannot be absolutely certain how many letters Paul wrote and to whom - yet Paul’s teaching is a major foundation stone of Christian faith.
To come to a very pressing concern, Mark’s Gospel’s has this sentence:
And he [Jesus] said to them [his disciples], “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery Mark 10:11-12
On the other hand, Matthew, on two occasions, insists that there are exceptions to Mark’s absolute decree:
It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.
Notice that Matthew has an exception clause. For him divorce is permissible in some circumstances related to “sexual immortality”. And note, too, that Matthew does not, as Mark does, even consider the possibility of a wife divorcing her husband. What is certain from Mark’s interpretation of the teaching of Jesus concerning divorce is that he is concerned to protect women—and that is no small matter.
Why are there profound differences in such an important matter as divorce and can these differences be reconciled? What does the preacher say on the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Year of Matthew when the Gospel of the day contains Matthew’s “divorce text”?
Scholars have tried and continue to try to reconcile these differences but there is no agreement and the wiser counsel is to try to explain why these differences are there in the first place. Instead of trying to explain them away, it is wiser to accept them and try to understand that the complexities of the past were as difficult to navigate as they are in our time.
We will tackle these thorny questions as we make our way through the remaining weeks of the Year of Luke and a good place to start is with our Gospels. These are the books most familiar to Christians, though less so to Catholics than to those who are rooted in the traditions of the Reformation when the heart of Christianity was sadly torn in two.
Many stories - Four Gospels
Actually there are or were more thirty gospels. Writing accounts of Jesus, about what he said and what he did, seems to have been quite popular in the first three hundred years of
Christian faith and, indeed ever since. We have bits and pieces of these ancient texts and they influence us more that we know.
Who does not know that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was an old man? Yet our four Gospels say nothing of the kind and, if Matthew is to be believed, we are talking about a man able to foot-slog it down to Egypt with a young mother and an infant child and back again some years later. Joseph, to save a possible threat to his family, again ups sticks from his home in Bethlehem and hiked all the way to Galilee to a totally obscure hamlet called Nazareth. So where do we get the old man scenario from?
The answer is a piece of fanciful fiction called The Protoevangelium of James, written in the 4th or 5th century A.D. and in a variety of versions (Greek, Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopic). It must have enjoyed considerable popularity in the churches of the east.
It claims to have been written by James, the brother of the Lord, though the writer does not show much knowledge of Jewish customs. It begins with Anna, allegedly the mother of Mary, who prays earnestly for a child, even in her old age:
And behold! An angel of the Lord came to her and said, “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer. You shall conceive and bear, and your offspring shall be spoken of in the whole world”. Protevangelium 4:1
When the child born turns out to be a girl, Anna declares “My soul is magnified this day”. When she reached three years her parents decided that this child special child be lodged in the Temple in Jerusalem, as was baby Samuel (I Samuel 1:21-28):
And Mary was in the Temple nurtured like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel.
When she was twelve and nearing puberty, the Temple priests decided that she must be removed that she may not pollute the sanctuary of the Lord. The High priest decided to pray in the Holy of Holies about the matter and an angel of the Lord gave this advice:
Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people and to whomsoever the Lord shall give a sign, his wife shall she be. Protevangelium 7:3
The whole country was scoured for widowers and a certain Joseph turned up and, after some prayer, a dove came and flew on to Joseph’s head. The High Priest said to Joseph,
Joseph, to you has fallen the good fortune to receive the virgin of the Lord; take her under your care.
Of course, as one does in the Bible, at the first sign of a call from God, Joseph raised an objection:
I already have sons and I am old, and she is but a girl. I fear lest I should become a laughing-stock to the children of Israel. Protevangelium 9:2
And so it goes on, filleting the Gospels of Matthew and Luke to create an incredible story until the child is born in a cave, hidden by Joseph from the public gaze lest her shame be revealed; he went “to seek [only] a Hebrew midwife in the region of Bethlehem” (Protevangelium 17:3). Hence the cave in the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
When Jesus Christ Super Star premiered on the stage in New York in 1971, some were concerned about Mary Magdalene’s rôle in the story. Her song I don’t know how to love him indicated a love affair of some kind. Where did this come from?
There is an ancient text preserved in the Coptic language in a 5th century A.D. edition. Its title is “The Gospel according to Mary”. A page in Greek is preserved in the John Rylands collection of manuscripts in Manchester. There is also a 3rd century Greek papyrus fragment of a few pages.
The gist of the matter is this. St Peter asks Mary Magdalene to reveal to all the apostles what the Saviour had privately revealed to her because, as he explains, Jesus loved her above all other women. When she has done this, Andrew said that he didn’t believe word of it:
Did he then speak privately to a woman rather than with us, and not openly? Shall we turn about and all of us listen to her? Has he preferred her over against us?
Levi, one of the Twelve, protests that if the Saviour had made her worthy, who are they to reject her. As he says,
Certainly the Saviour knows her rightly enough. Therefore did he love her more than us.
That was enough to inspire a wonderful piece of theatre in 1971.
The point is that there were endless fictional pieces floating around the early churches, an output that continues into our own time. Though some of these are given the title “Gospel”, they are not thought in any way to be other than fiction and never challenged the emergence of our four Gospels. But they did have an influence on popular piety and continue to people popular imagination. Just look at your crib. Joseph is an old man. Many magi have been turned into three kings. Oxen and asses have been imported from Isaiah. Matthew’s house as the birthplace of Jesus has been rejected in favour of a manger in stable. And even in Bethlehem a cave is venerated as the place of birth. We are the inheritors of fanciful tales.
Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John
We have four Gospels. But we must recognise that they tell different stories. If you were writing a Gospel would you leave out the Parable of the Good Samaritan? Would you leave out the Parable of the Prodigal Son? Yet these are found only in St Luke. Would you leave out an account of the conception and birth of Jesus, as Mark and John do? Would you leave out the despairing cry of the man on the cross:
My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?
… and substitute it, as Luke does, with a prayer for forgiveness:
Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing?
Would you write a Gospel leaving out every parable that Jesus uttered and instead present a magisterial figure who walks through this world routing his opponents with the depth of this wisdom and the authority of his words, insisting that God is his Father? Would you, as John does, insist that the Word made Flesh goes to his death on a cross embracing it as a throne of glory?
Each Gospel has its own story to tell. Each has its own purpose in the telling. Each has its own theological understanding of Jesus and of the God who gave his Son that we may have life. Each has an agenda dictated by the particular circumstances that caused Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John to write what they wrote. And each has a community to advise and counsel, to admonish, and, above all, to inspire. As we make our way through the Gospels as they are presented in our Lectionary, it is imperative that we discover, as best we can, the context within which they came into being, to discover why each evangelist wrote what he wrote. Otherwise we will continue to believe in an old man with beard and a young girl in a shapeless blue and white ensemble.
It is necessary, therefore, in making our way through the readings from Scripture, to become aware of the wider picture. For example, when we read a passage from Luke’s Gospel it would be wonderful if we were sufficiently tuned-in to recognise that that’s Luke, not John. We must know, at the very least, that a reading is from the Hebrew Bible or from the Christian New Testament. That would be a start. To know at least that Genesis is the first book and the Apocalypse is the last is to know where it all began and where it all ends.
Luke’s Gospel begins with an introduction by the author telling about his careful research before he began to write his take on the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But he does not reveal his name. Sometime toward the end of the second century (A.D.) the names Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John began to appear on manuscripts of the Gospels. But we have very little solid information as to who these people might be.
Luke himself does not tell us about himself, other than that he was a careful and energetic researcher. A man named Luke is mentioned three times in the New Testament, each giving some information but we cannot be certain if the man so named in the author of the Gospel that bears the name Luke.
The earliest reference is in the second last line of St Paul’s letter to Philemon and his wife:
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
Obviously someone called Luke was with Paul at the time of writing. This Luke was not only a companion of St Paul but was a co-worker of the great apostle. But is this Luke the Luke who wrote the Gospel?
The second reference is in the letter to Colossian Christians (4:14):
Luke the beloved physician greets you …
This Luke is identified as a doctor but again there is no further indication as to the identity of who this Luke might be. This greeting, however, is the basis for a tradition that the author of the third Gospel was a medical man.
There is a rather mournful end to the letter we know as the Second Letter to Timothy. The author, allegedly St Paul, bemoans the fact that he has been deserted by some of his companions and,
Luke alone is with me.
Second Timothy 4:11
There is almost unanimity among scholars that this letter was not written by St Paul and that this greeting is added to give the impression that it comes from the hand of the Paul himself. I confess that there are days when I think Paul wrote it and days when I am sure he didn’t. But either way, who this Luke is remains a conjecture.
The Acts of the Apostles was written by the same person who wrote Luke’s Gospel. In the Acts the author introduces what for convenience are called “we passages”. These five passages suggest that Luke was a missionary colleague and not merely an assistant of St Paul. Consider this passage of great importance for it records the foundation of Christian faith in Philippi and introduces readers to the first named European Christian in the New Testament—a woman named Lydia:
… setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
Apart from the fact that this passage introduces us to Lydia whose house became a house-church, notice that the writer of Acts has introduced himself into the story. So we are led to understand that for some of his missionary journeys Paul was accompanied by St Luke and that he participated in the work of teaching (“One who heard us …”). There is no overwhelming reason to reject these passages. It is, however, strange that Luke does not give any evidence that he knew Paul’s understanding of Jesus.
What we do know is the truth of a statement often made to compare and contrast the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: Matthew proclaimed the kingdom of heaven; Luke proclaimed the Church. It is true that it is the Christian community that is central to the concerns of Luke’s Gospel and to his second book, the Acts of the Apostles. His Gospel presents Jesus, in what he says and in what he does, as the model for every Christian. Luke constructs his story of Jesus in his Gospel to be the instigator and model of what comes to be in his Acts of the Apostles. So when Jesus visits the home of Mary and Martha, what happens there is told for the benefit of Luke’s readers and hearers. We must realise that Luke was not writing for us; he as writing for those among whom he lived and whose concerns he shared. He was anxious that they should live in their world as Jesus lived in his. Since his Gospel has come down to us, and we accept it as the word of God, we are invited to live in our time and in our place by adapting God’s holy words to the circumstances in which we live out our Christian faith.
Luke is concerned to teach Jesus to his readers and listeners (mostly listeners) because he believed that the world was not going to end soon. He believed that the purposes of God had a long way to go before we reached the end of the story. Many of the writers we find in the New Testament, including St Paul, believed that “the end is nigh!” Among the three Gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, Luke is the only one who realised that we are in it for the long haul. His account of Jesus in his Gospel became the backbone of much of the Church’s understanding of how Christians must live if they are to spread from a locked room in Jerusalem to the streets of Rome and beyond. It is important, therefore, to know (as best we can) the context and the content of each Gospel as we encounter individual readings from Sunday to Sunday.
A reading from the book of Genesis 18:1-10
And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “My lords, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on— since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.
The word of the Lord.
The trouble with the reading from the Book of Genesis offered to us today is to decide why it is placed before us on this day. Or, indeed, how it is of any help to us as we struggle to understand and to live what it means to be a Christian in our time and our place.
The General Introduction to the Roman Missal in its section on our Lectionary states certain principles. As to the Arrangements of the readings for Sundays and Solemnities of the Lord (Part Two, Chapter IV, 2b. 3) it states this:
The principles governing the Order of Readings for Sundays…are called the principles of ‘harmony’ and of ‘semi-continuous reading’.
The best instance of harmony between the Old and the New Testament readings occurs when it is one that Scripture itself suggests. This is the case when the teaching and events recounted in texts of the New Testament bear a more or less explicit relationship to the teaching and events of the Old Testament. The present Order of Readings selects Old Testament texts mainly because of their correlation with the New Testament texts read in the same Mass, and particularly with the gospel text.
So what has Sarah’s pregnancy got to do with two unmarried sisters in Bethany a thousand years later? And what has it got to do with us another two thousand years down the line? The preacher may heartily wish to take refuge in today’s Gospel Acclamation that is loosely based on Luke 8:5:
Blessed are those who,
with an honest and good heart,
take the word of God to themselves
and yield a harvest through their perseverance.
He may wish to leave it “to themselves”, to the “honest and good hearts” in the pew to work it out for themselves.
The message in today’s marriage of Old and New Testament might be that women who are busy looking after the obligations of hospitality, the needs of travellers, and the necessities of cooking and serving, have more to do with their time than listen to guys shooting the breeze. After all, when the three strangers arrived, Abraham ran to the tent to find the missus and tell her to get on with it. And Martha is in the kitchen up to her eyes while the pair of them out there are blathering on about God and stuff.
In our time, by way of establishing the place of women in the churches and the Church, it is imperative to look carefully at women’s stories in the Bible. We must know where we come from before we learn where we should be going.
The first of many women’s stories is the myth of Eve. It starts well. Women and men come from the creative hand of God:
And God the human in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. Genesis 1:17-28
Then they are given the very first commandment laid on human shoulders:
And God said to them,
and multiply and fill the earth,
and conquer it,
and hold sway over the fish of the sea …
So far, as the text insists, all is well:
God saw all that He had done,
and, look, it was very good.
We know what happened next: wonderful garden in Eden, plenty of food, four rivers to water everything, even stocks of gold, bedellium (a kind of myrrh?), and lapis lazuli. But the Lord God gave one command concerning the tree of knowledge, a tree that bore knowledge of good and knowledge of evil.
The rest we know. The man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, and the woman and man are driven into the real world and out of the mythical explanation of the ambivalence in every human heart. Their first child is a murderer. But strangely the Lord marks Cain “so that whoever found him would not slay him” (Genesis 4:15).
The next woman we meet (apart from a mention of the wife of Noah) is Sarah. God is fulsome in praise of her and promises that she will mother a whole nation of children. Her husband knew better:
And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Genesis 17:15-17
So we come to Abram (soon to be Abraham) and to Sarai his wife (soon to be Sarah). They are forced to go to Egypt because of a severe famine. Sarai’s beauty catches the eye of the Pharaoh and “the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house” (Genesis 12:15), a euphemism for his harem of women. The Pharaoh enriches Abram but the Lord afflicted the man and the outcome is that the couple are sent packing. There are two other versions of this story with different men in chapter 20 and in chapter 26:1-12. Why such stories have been told in what is supposed to be an account of the Lord’s special care of the patriarchs is unclear but they do little to register Abraham as a man who had a deep regard for his wife. And what is God playing at?
The matter of the Lord’s announcement that Sarai would have a child, indeed, a son, runs into difficulties as Sarai decides that all is up for her in the matter of bearing a child. Like many childless women in the Bible (and beyond its pages) she blames the Lord for “keeping me from bearing children”. She takes the matter out of the Lord’s hands and offers her slave girl to her husband to beget a child in her name:
Perhaps I shall be built up through her.
And, says the text, she gave her to Abram her husband “as a wife”. The inevitable happened in that unhappy household and in a few devastating sentences Sarai’s plot is undone:
And he came to bed with Hagar and she conceived and she saw that she had conceived and her mistress seemed slight in her eyes. And Sarai said to Abram, “This outrage against me is because of you! I myself put my slave girl in your embrace and when she saw that she had conceived, I became slight in her eyes. Let the Lord judge between you and me!” Genesis 16:5
Sarai’s vindictive jealously forces the mother and child into the wilderness and there the angel of the Lord found her. The messenger of the Lord insists that she return to her mistress and put up with the abuse for the Lord had not deserted her. Listen to the messenger’s words:
Look, you are with child and you will bear a son
And you will call his name Ishmael,
For the Lord has heeded your suffering.
The plight of Sarai is worse than ever for she grows older and the Lord has spoken to her slave girl, given her a son, and promised that he would be the father of a great people.
However, the promise that Abram would father a son with his wife Sari is again given by God and cemented with a change of names. Abram becomes Abraham. In his case the meaning is not much changed (Genesis 17:5) It’s like Jack becoming John. His name means “Exalted Father”. It is as if he were a prince who had a name change on ascending the kingly throne. Sarai becomes Sarah (Genesis 17:15) and that is a very slight grammatical change. But both changes signal that God is about to fulfil all that has been promised. For these name changes come when God announces that God’s covenant will be established with Abraham and his posterity and adds that with it will come “the whole land of Canaan as an everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:8). But most of all God makes a promise to all of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants:
I will be their God.
Today’s reading brings us to the last year of waiting. Heavenly beings (representing the Presence of God) turn up and are royally entertained by Abraham (with Sarah doing most of the work). A son for Sarah is promised - yet again. The promise’s fulfilment is specified: your wife Sarah shall have a son this time next year. And stuck in the tent while outside the men enjoyed her cooking, Sarah laughed. Remember that laugh.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 15:2-5. R/. v. 1
R/. The just will live in the presence of the Lord.
O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?
Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
He who walks blamelessly and does what is right
and speaks truth in his heart;
who does not slander with his tongue. R/.
He who does no evil to his neighbour,
nor takes up a reproach against his friend;
in whose eyes a vile person is despised,
but who honours those who fear the Lord. R/.
He who swears to his own hurt and does not change;
who does not put out his money at interest
and does not take a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things shall never be moved.
R/. The just will live in the presence of the Lord.
Psalm 15 begins with a question: who is to have the joy of living with the Lord in the very Presence of the Lord in his tent, that is, in the Temple in Jerusalem? Is it a pilgrim who has made the journey to the Holy City, who at last ascended Mount Zion, and comes into the Lord’s dwelling place on earth?
Or is it the person “who walks blamelessly, who does justice, who speaks truth? Notice that this piece of poetry does not use the usual adornments of poetry, images, metaphors, and similes. There are no such devices in this psalm. No flights of imagination. All is plain speaking. To be in God’s Presence is to stand with a neighbour and to do no wrong. To stand in the Presence of the Lord is to be one who keeps one’s word, one who honours promises made, one who does not engage in usurious practices, and is not given to taking bribes. Such a one stands firmly in God’s Presence. As the Response expresses with utter conviction:
The just will live in the Presence of the Lord.
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
The word of the Lord.
In following on from last Sunday’s second reading, a reading from the letter to Colossian house-churches, the Lectionary skips some sentences. These are important to grasp the continuity of thought in this first chapter of the letter. These are the missing sentences:
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister (deacon). Colossians 1:21-23
Whoever wrote this letter (and it might have been Paul, though the jury is out on the matter) has provided a wonderful conclusion to all that was announced in the hymn we read from Colossians last week. To recall, the hymn teaches in summary what his readers and hearers need to know of the wonders that God has done in Christ Jesus. The omitted sentences (verses 29-31) between last Sunday’s reading and that of today speak of the effect that God’s work has achieved in this world. A new people has been created, a people who can stand blameless, holy, and beyond reproach before God. Such people must hold fast to the good news, to the gospel that has given them hope that they are safe in God’s hands.
Having given this assurance, the writer imagines Paul as he rejoices that he was chosen to be God’s servant (διακονος, diakonos, deacon, servant) in bringing the message of God’s goodness to so many. Whatever sufferings he has endured, whatever he must still suffer, he endures them with joy that his sufferings are joined with the suffering of Jesus who gave himself up so that the Church might be born on earth. Here the word “church” refers to the whole Church, such as it was in those early days.
Past ages did not know what was to come but now, that hidden work of God has been revealed to the saints. Notice that the word “saints” refers to the people whose hopes have been realised in their being together in the Church. It does not refer to those who have died and gone before us.
To those few Christians in Colossae has been revealed the glory of what was formerly hidden. Christ is in them. Not only are they in Christ. But Christ is in them. Being “Church” is to be in Christ and to have Christ within them in the body of Christ (see above: for the sake of his body, that is, the Church). By hearing and committing themselves to the wisdom they have received they become mature, perfect in living in Christ, knowing that Christ lives in them.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.
The Gospel of the Lord.
The first thing to notice is that Jesus and those with him were “on their way”. In his Acts of the Apostles Luke uses the word “way” as a name for those who are Jesus people. They are people of the Way:
Saul … went to the High Priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2
Defending himself before Felix, the governor of Judea, against accusations brought by the High Priest Ananias, Paul declares:
But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets … Acts 24:14
Of the 19 times Luke uses the word “way” in his Gospel most are to the ordinary Greek meaning of “road” or ”street”. But on many occasions he uses the word in a metaphorical sense:
the way of peace Luke 1:79
prepare the way of the lord Luke 3:4
who will prepare your way before you Luke 7:27
Go your way Luke 10:3
Go on my way today and tomorrow Luke 13:33
But truly teach the way of God Luke 20:21
What readers and listeners were asked to do when they were reading or hearing the Gospel read was to ask whether they were being called to walk the way of Jesus, to do in their time and place what Jesus did in his. If John the Baptist is called “to guide our feet in the way of peace”, am I being called to walk in the way of peace and to guide other people in the way of peace? If Jesus claims as his own the duty to “prepare of the way of the Lord”, am I not appointed to do the same? If Jesus is one “who teaches the way of God”, is not that what I must be about? If Clophas and his wife meet a man who causes their hearts to “burn within us while he talked to us along the way, while he opened to us the Scriptures”, ought not all who walk the way with Jesus not open up human hearts by opening the pages of Scriptures? And if, after the opening of the Scriptures, he sat with them, and “they recognised him in the breaking of the bread”, ought not we to realise what we are about as we hear the word and break the bread? Are we not equally commanded to do as they did, to hurry “to tell what had happened on the way” (Luke 24:35).
So when Jesus and his disciples “went on their way” to Martha’s house, ought not Luke’s readers pay attention and ask “what’s in it for us?” Is there a lesson here that must be learned if we are to go on the way with Jesus?
Martha and Mary
Of the two women in the story, Martha is mentioned first and she is the one who welcomes Jesus “into her house”. What Mary does in the story is to sit at the feet of the Lord and listen to his word, leaving her sister “to serve alone”. Martha having done the welcoming, does the complaining:
Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone. Tell her to help me. Luke 10:40
A reasonable complaint, you might think, that ought to have been directed to her sister. But notice that it is Martha who recognises Jesus as Lord and addresses him as such: Kyrie, Lord. And have you noticed that her complaint is put down to him: “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” To which she adds a very clear instruction to Jesus: “Tell her then to help me”. Still not a word from the sister.
Indeed, the sister has nothing to say in the story. All she does is to sit at his feet “listening to his word”.
Now before we all rush into the kitchen to sympathise with Martha and to help with the washing up, pause and think. What did we hear on the mountain in the very last chapter? We were spoken to by a voice that “came out of the cloud”, the very voice of God, the very cloud from which God spoke to Moses, the very cloud from which God speaks to all who listen to Luke’s story:
This is my Son,
my Chosen One;
listen to him.
And when God spoke from the mountain to the ancient people who were making their way from slavery to freedom, this was his word:
This is what Mary does:
And as for her sister called Mary, sitting down at the feet of the Lord, she was listening to his word. Luke 10:39
The sense is that Mary sat down at the feet of Jesus, the formal position a student would take to listen to the teaching of a rabbi. The verb “was listening” is in the imperfect tense indicating continuous and careful attention to his every word. The emphasis on seizing the moment, of listening to Jesus before all else is clear when we put the story in the context of listening to God that is at the very heart of the Bible’s teaching. The Shema prayer from Deuteronomy is recited twice in the daily liturgy of the Jewish synagogue. We are all transfigured by listening.
The response of Jesus must be understood in the context of Deuteronomy and especially in the context of the Transfiguration story in chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is named Lord (Kyrios) three times in the story. Both sisters are in the presence of the Lord. It is Mary who seizes the moment.
But before we rush to judgement on Martha, a few cautionary comments must be made. First, and on Mary’s side, listening to the word of Jesus is more than it seems:
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God … Luke 5:1
And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God”. Luke 8:9-11
My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it. Luke 8.21
Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it. Luke 11:27-28
To hear the word of God one must listen to the word of Jesus. So Mary in choosing “the good portion” (not “the better part”) has chosen wisely. She has done what is necessary if one is to understand what the kingdom of God on earth means. If we listen we will learn and if we learn, we will know what to do. According to Jesus, you can’t have one without the other.
But Martha has done what the Good Samaritan has done. She has rolled up her sleeves and got stuck in. Jesus himself has underlined that to love your neighbour as God loves, then you must rush to help whoever falls among thieves. The Good Samaritan parable keeps us from hearing without doing. The star of the story is Martha for she is the one who welcomes Jesus, who talks to him, recognising him as her Lord, and who wins from Jesus the advice we all need. There is no Church if we do no more than sit with Mary. There is no Church is we stay in the kitchen with Martha. Church happens where the word is heard and put into practice. Perhaps the last word should not be left to Martha, nor to Mary. If we listen to both of these lovely women we will hear the word of Jesus:
My mother and my brothers are those
who hear the word of God and keep it.