Sixteenth Sunday In Ordinary Time

By Father Donald Dilger

First Reading: Genesis 18:1-10a; Response: Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 5; Second Reading: Colossians 1:24-28; Gospel: Luke 10:38-42

This first reading is a story of an appearance of the Lord to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre. A terebinth is probably a pistachio or other large nut tree. No doubt a beautiful tree, since Ben Sirach 24:16, speaking of wisdom, writes, “I have spread out my branches like a terebinth. My branches are glorious and graceful.” Mamre was situated some distance south of Jerusalem in the Hebron area. Although it is the Lord who appears to Abraham, when he looks up from the opening of his tent, he sees three men. Semitic hospitality takes over. This 99 year old man runs to greet them, bows to the ground, and begs the strangers to rest with him. There is water for the feet and “a little food.” The menu, “a little food,” consists of a whole steer, bread baked by Sarah, milk and curds. The Lord and his company had a hearty appetite, more like teenage boys than heavenly beings. Abraham served as table waiter. No conversation is recorded until the meal is over. The three men, (in unison?), asked Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?” He replies, “There in the tent.”

Artists have depicted this 90 year old woman peeping out of the tent opening eavesdropping. One of the men makes a surprise announcement: “Next year I will return at this time, and Sarah will then have a son.” Our first reading omits the rest of the entertainment. Let’s enjoy it here. The author explains that Abraham and Sarah were old, and Sarah was beyond child-bearing age. That is why she says, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have sensual pleasure?” The Lord is annoyed. He asks Abraham why Sarah laughed and ridiculed the idea of having a child at age ninety. He repeats his promise. Sarah lies, “I did not laugh!” The Lord replies, “Yes, you did!” Almost a she said/he said situation. What is the purpose of this story? In its origin it gave the reason for giving the name Isaac to the promised son, since the Hebrew verb “to laugh” is the origin of the name Isaac. More importantly, the authors/editors continue to demonstrate the trust their hero Abraham puts in the Lord, a process beginning with his obedience in Genesis 12. The theme of hospitality connects with today’s gospel.

The Responsorial Psalm 15 continues the theme of reward for those who live blamelessly and do justice. (We need to overlook other stories in which Abraham was not always blameless). “To do justice” means to think truth, no slander, no harm to others, honoring the good, not lending money at usury (excessive interest), despising the degenerate (things not in accord with gospel values), not accepting bribes against the innocent. The People’s Response agrees, “Those who do justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

The second reading continues excerpts from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. The reading begins with an affirmation of vicarious (for others) suffering, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” The next statement shows a boldness which only Paul might make, “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” This can mean that in the providence of God, the sufferings of Paul and even our own, are accepted by God in union with the sufferings of Christ for the Church, for others. Almost seems like Paul affirms co-redemption, not absolutely, but by God’s mercy. Paul speaks of an ancient mystery revealed only in his time and through his work, God’s outreach even to the Gentiles through Christ. Recall that Paul is speaking to Gentile converts to Christianity. The purpose of revealing this mystery: “that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”

The gospel reading tells the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary. From other sources we learn that they had a brother named Lazarus. The three siblings lived a short distance from Jerusalem, on the eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives in the town of Bethany. It is probable that the home of these friends of Jesus served as his getaway when in Jerusalem, just as the home of Simon Peter and Andrew in Capernaum became “mission central” in the north, in Galilee. Luke contrasts the personalities of the two sisters. Mary sat quietly close to Jesus listening to him. Martha was busy with much serving, preparing a meal for Jesus. This section of Luke’s gospel is called the Journey to Jerusalem. Jesus’ disciples were with him on this journey. So it is likely that Martha was preparing food for a large group of men. She would have benefitted from the menu served to three men outside Abraham’s tent, as we saw in the first reading — a whole steer, etc. It is no wonder that, when Martha saw her sister, in her opinion doing nothing, she approached Jesus to “tell her to help me.”

Jesus did not see the situation like Martha did. Instead he gently told her that Mary’s presence close to him in rapt attention to his words was “the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”

Unfair? At first sight, but a closer look tells us that Luke is teaching catechism here. Later in Luke’s gospel Jesus will say, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, etc., for life is more than food . . ., instead seek the Father’s kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well” (12:22-23, 31). In another context St. Paul said this, “The kingdom of God is not food and drink . . . .” In John 6:27 Jesus says to a crowd looking to him for more fish and bread, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” That is the food that Mary was consuming as she sat close to the Lord and listened to his words. What else is Luke teaching by this story? When we consider the low esteem in which women were often held in Judaism, Luke, who is always interested in the lower rungs of society, demonstrates that women too can be disciples of the Lord, not only in active work but also in hearing the word of the Lord.