16th Sunday of the Year
“Mary has chosen the better portion.”
There are times in the Gospels, at least for some of us, when our immediate reaction to an event or a parable is quite the opposite of what we know quite well is the response due to the lesson that we are supposed to be learning. For instance, in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, how many of us would instinctively sympathize with the workers who have worked all day and receive the same reward as those who come at the last hour and receive the same reward. We, like the workers in the parable, tend to think “fairness” is something that can trump charity, even when no injustice is involved. Such an attitude will not allow us to understand the mercy of God.
Likewise, in the account of Martha and Mary, our immediate reaction may well be to sympathize with Martha who is carrying the burden of hospitality by herself while Mary seems to be shirking this duty by sitting with the guest and conversing with him. How many of us would not react in the very same way as Martha if our sibling acted like Mary when a guest, no matter how special, came to our home? In fact, we might argue that the more important the guest, the greater the demands of hospitality would seem to be, and so how can Mary be anything but selfish when she just sits there and lets Martha do all the work? And in virtually all such circumstances, except one like this, we would have a legitimate complaint as would Martha; but this is that one exceptional case that does not fit with the norms of hospitality, and we have to try to understand why that is the case,
When a guest comes to our home, the guest is in a certain sense in need of our hospitality to be made to feel at home. Certainly the guest is bringing us something with his or her very presence in our home, but likewise we are providing something that the guest needs when we show our hospitality, the need to be made to feel welcome and at home, in our home.
However, faith tells us that there is an absolutely unique situation here when the guest is Jesus Christ, a situation that will suspend the normal order of things and alter the normal situation of hospitality. This guest is different from all others because He alone is at home wherever He is, because of Who He is. For His are the lands and the seas and all things created, for He is the one through whom and for whom they were created in the first place. That is the key here, to recognize truly who He is, and why He is wherever He is. This is what Mary seems to grasp instinctively and Martha does not yet grasp. He is the one guest who truly needs nothing from us and who comes for but one reason, to give everything to us, His presence, His Word, His love, His glory, everything.
In that sense, the Lord is always the host, and we are always the guests in his presence. His purpose in coming to Martha and Mary’s home is inseparable from His purpose in coming into the world, inseparable from his mission from the Father – “that they might have Life and have it in abundance.” Wherever Jesus is, He is the giver of gifts. He is the host, the one who makes us feel at home wherever He is, and most especially in the Kingdom of His Father, the kingdom which is wherever He is.
That is the Theo-logic of the situation which Mary seems to have understood and which Martha did not yet quite understand. God needs nothing from us, and gives us everything. Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and so wherever He is, He is the greatest gift to man, the gift without which man cannot be fully man. That is Christian anthropology.
Christ himself teaches us this truth in the encounter with Satan: He said in reply, “It is written: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” So, in this visit, He was actually feeding Mary with this bread even as Martha was preparing her earthly bread for Him. Mary understood what Jesus was doing for this was not a new saying. Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 8:3 to the devil, and now he was feeding Mary with this source of life eternal.
Mary chose the better portion precisely because the Bread that Jesus was feeding her was the Word which brings eternal life, not temporal life. The greatest “hospitality” in this situation is precisely to do what Mary shows us, i.e., to be fed by Him, to allow him to do what He has come for, and always comes for, to give us what we cannot give ourselves or anyone else from our own resources, life eternal.
Jesus certainly could provide food of the earthly kind for himself, but he will graciously accept the earthly hospitality of the two sisters, but only after He has provided for them the greater gift that He alone can provide and lives to provide. It is a matter of priorities. To allow Him to do this is in fact a higher form of hospitality, a heavenly form, for in doing so we make him truly feel at home, for His true home is Heaven, wherever He is present.
Whenever we are in His presence, or rather He is in our presence, we must be attentive not to His needs, for He has none; He is pure gift for us. So we must be attentive not to his needs, nor even to our own earthly needs, except our absolute need for Him. We must be attentive to Him, must be wrapped up in His Word, and then we will know the blessedness of His coming into our home.
All of this has relevance to our approach to the sacred mysteries of the worship we undertake in the Mass. Do we not approach this sacred cult at times as if we were doing God the favor of being present, fulfilling some need of God to be worshipped, rather than coming here so that God can become wonderfully present for us and fulfill the meaning and purpose of our life? I once heard a man express that very sentiment, that somehow God should be happy that at least some of us are showing up to worship Him. He was a lot like Martha before her conversion to a richer faith in Christ. He showed by this statement, even if made flippantly, that he understood very little about the Person and mission of Christ, and little or nothing about the link between the work of Christ and the Mass.
The Mass is never something we do for God, for God has no need of anything, and certainly we can do nothing befitting God’s glory by ourselves. The Mass is rather something God does for us, at least for those who truly believe in the Person and mission of Jesus Christ. The Sacrifice of the Mass is something that we absolutely cannot do for ourselves without Christ being present in His priesthood, and yet this holy sacrifice and communion is something we absolutely need as we need nothing else.
In the Mass, it is God who acts first and who enables us only to respond, to act secondarily and only through His power. God provides everything that is of ultimate importance in the Mass, the priest, even the very act of worship, that is, the sacrifice of Christ, by which we worship God properly speaking.
Thus even our very worship of God is itself a gift from God, and its purpose is certainly not to fulfill some need of God, but to fulfill the deepest need of our being, the need for Truth and Life, both of which come from God to us first, before being returned to God by us.
For the celebration of the Mass, unlike Mary and Martha in today’s Gospel, we come to God’s house to make it absolutely clear whose hospitality is really at work in the Mass; not ours, but God’s. Thus, like Mary, we need but one thing, to be absolutely attentive to His Word, to thre One who has called us to Himself and to His House to feed us with the Bread of Life.
Whatever helps us fix our attention on His presence in our midst in word and sacrament is good and helpful, and whatever distracts us from His presence and activity is destructive. Even our relationship to each other must not rob us of this fixed attention of Mary, being wrapped up in Him, in his manifold presence in word, sacrament, and the corpus mystici of His people. In short, even the horizontal dimension of the liturgy, our attentiveness to each other must be enwrapped in our attentiveness to Christ and to His unique presence among us in word and sacrament.
That is the attitude Mary had in today’s Gospel when Jesus visited her home, and it is the attitude that Martha would soon learn. And so perhaps do we need to learn this same attitude twenty centuries later. This is truly choosing “the better portion” because it is choosing Christ above every other good and above every other duty, even the duty of hospitality. When He has brought us into His home and has entered our heart and soul, first in word and then in His very body, only then do we truly understand Him and His mission, and only then shall we be truly blessed, as Paul says, beyond our imagination.