Lessons From Mary and Martha: Jesus Must Be the Center of All Charity and Service

User's Guide to Sunday, July 21

Johannes Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Johannes Vermeer, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (photo: Public domain)

Sunday, July 21, 2019, is the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C). Mass readings: Genesis 18:1-10A; Psalm 15:2-3, 3-4, 5; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42.

Today’s readings remind us of the centrality of Christ as we learn to love our neighbor.

The first reading from Genesis recounts the story of Abraham and his three visitors. On a natural level, Abraham is fulfilling the ancient requirements of hospitality so important to people of the Middle East. However, one is struck by just how hospitable Abraham is being. He bows down to them and refers to himself as their servant. He goes to great expense to feed them and gives them not “a little food,” as he promised, but quite a bit of fine food.

The Church Fathers have explained to us that, supernaturally, the three visitors are the three persons of the Holy Trinity. The passage begins by saying that “the Lord appeared to Abraham.” This is why the patriarch refers to the three as “sir” in the singular. It’s why we read that “one of them” predicted the birth of Isaac. The story reveals to us how attentive Abraham was to the Lord — that in this encounter he treats them not as strangers, but as masters.

This is why the Psalm for today reminds us that “he who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” The Psalm speaks of behaving justly toward one’s neighbor. In doing so, we live as though our neighbor in need were the Lord.

The second reading from St. Paul transitions us from this ancient encounter with the hidden Trinity to our current age, where the Trinity has been revealed in and through Jesus.

The Gospel reading from St. Luke is the very familiar story of Mary and Martha, wherein Martha is chastised. Many feel sympathetic toward Martha, but Jesus’ correction is appropriate. After all, Martha accuses Jesus of failing to live up to justice by allowing Mary to sit at his feet and then orders Our Lord to tell Mary to help. This is not how one interacts with the divine, but it is all too common.

One example is when those who work toward justice accuse God and the Church of not doing enough for the oppressed or of a failure of political advocacy on behalf of the poor. To both Martha and those who would accuse the Church of failure, Our Lord says that the “better part” is to receive the teaching and love of Christ. This is because all the well-intentioned work in the world will be as nothing if it is not rooted in relationship with Jesus.

The lesson of saints like St. Teresa of Calcutta and so many others is that true hospitality for neighbor flows out of love for Jesus and not out of rage at unjust systems. Uncoupled from Christ, as it was for Martha, well-intentioned work becomes “anxious and worried” work that spills out into judgment of others and even God and his Church.

Jesus must be the center of everything — of all charitable work, all study, all ministry, all forms of service. To make that so, we must learn to sit quietly at his feet and receive his word. He may indeed be calling us to some great work for the poor, but let it be his calling and not ours.

Omar Gutierrez is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.

He is the president and co-founder of the Evangelium Institute.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.