for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary TimeJuly 18, 2010
Luke 10: 38-42
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle
“Mary sat beside the Lord listening to him” (Luke 10: 39).
The 5 verses of our gospel today come immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan—as if to say that Martha acts the Good Samaritan toward a weary traveler, Jesus, by offering him hospitality on his journey, by showing him compassion, by providing food and rest and, presumably, good company and good conversation; altho, unfortunately, we’re not told who else was there besides Martha’s sister and, we may be sure, the Twelve; not even Lazarus gets a mention.
Jesus with Mary & Martha, by Tintoretto
I see another link between this passage and last Sunday’s story. Do you remember the lawyer’s opening question? “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25). Think about that for a moment.
What can you do to earn or deserve an inheritance? Nothing, of course. You might do something to merit dis-inheritance. But an inheritance is a freely given gift—like eternal life. Someone preparing his will, I understand, will provide for the payment of his debts and obligations before dispensing his estate to his family, friends, and charities. The debts and obligations, obviously, aren’t part of the inheritance. The heirs—family, friends, and charities—altho they may eventually fight over the outcome, have no input into the testator’s plans. He dispenses what he wants to whom he wants and ignores or even slights whom he wants. Yesterday’s New York Times has a profile of a big benefactor of theological schools who has disinherited his 4 kids, saying, “I don’t want my good fortune to influence their lives.” The reporter doesn’t say what they think about that. But the estate is the testator’s gift to dispose of as he wishes. Someone may think he deserved inclusion, or deserved a bigger share—isn’t that what the lawsuits are usually about?—but in the end the law will ask only was the will properly drawn up, was it the last one prepared by the testator, and was the testator of sound mind when he prepared it; not was he wise or fair in what he decided. If someone was passed over, out of carelessness or out of spite, he can scream “unfair” till the cows come home, but he won’t get a cent.
When God freely offers us eternal life thru the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it isn’t because we deserve it or earn it. We can only say, “Thank you!”—which we do when we celebrate the Eucharist and the Hours and other forms of the sacred liturgy. If we freely and knowingly reject God’s offer, then we’ll get what we deserve for our sins: as Jesus relates in various parables, being “cast into the outer darkness to wail and gnash [our] teeth” (Matt 22:13; 25:30; cf. 8:12), or “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41). It’s no small thing to pray for perseverance and to renew our thanks daily.
How does that relate to today’s gospel? What are the women in the story doing? “Mary sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak,” while Martha “burdened” herself “with much serving” in the kitchen and at the table and with all the chores of hospitality (Luke 10:40). And Jesus chided Martha, gently, but praised Mary for choosing the better part (vv. 41-42). The lesson isn’t about hospitality, really, or good manners—just a couple of weeks ago Jesus faulted Simon the Pharisee for his bad manners, after all (Luke 7:44), and in our 1st reading today Abraham quite properly offers hospitality to the strangers who show up at his camp (Gen 18:1-8). Nor is it an encouragement to sit around yakking with our buds while there’s work to be done.
At a deeper level than just what’s happening in the story, at the level of a gospel teaching, Mary is doing nothing but accepting the word of the Lord while Martha’s working herself into an “anxious and worried” frenzy (v. 41) and missing the word of the Lord. Martha’s “earning” the Lord’s good will while Mary’s accepting it. And we can’t “earn” the Lord’s good will—grace, salvation—we can only accept it. Mary’s better part is the freely offered friendship of Jesus indicated by her physical proximity, sitting at his feet. What an image of heaven!
Of course we can’t take these 5 verses in isolation from the rest of the Gospel. We can’t sit in our rooms or the chapel all day meditating on the word of God while ignoring the chores that have to be done in the house, the apostolic ministry that has to be done to spread the word, the practice of charity (being a neighbor like the Good Samaritan). But we do have to keep all our deeds in proper perspective, the perspective offered by Jesus in the little parable of the “unworthy servant”: “When you’ve done all that you’ve been commanded, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we’ve only done our duty’” (Luke 17:10)—the perspective demonstrated by Martha in the kitchen and Mary at the Lord’s feet.
 Mark Oppenheimer, “From One Benefactor, Diverse Seeds in Theology,” NYT, July 17, 2010, p. A12.