Martha and the Good Samaritan

User's Guide to Sunday, July 17


Sunday, July 17, is the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C). Mass Readings: Genesis 18:1-10, Psalms 15:2-5, Colossians 1:24-28, Luke 10:38-42

Today’s Gospel tells the story of Martha and Mary.

First, it seems to tell the story of a sister who helps serve her guests and a sister who just enjoys her guests. But then Jesus praises the unhelpful sister and corrects the helpful sister. Their names have become descriptors of certain types of Christians: “Marthas” are those who are busy helping others; “Marys” are those who stay close to Jesus.

A few clues help us understand what Jesus has in mind.

The first clue: In the Gospel of Luke, this story comes in Chapter Nine, between the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the story of Jesus teaching the Our Father.

Clearly, Jesus does not mean that those who show hospitality toward others are wrong. Martha has just welcomed Jesus — and, presumably, his travel companions — to her house. And she has welcomed them with open arms, doing what is necessary to make their stay pleasant. Martha is like the Good Samaritan, who tends to the wounds of the man on the side of the road and pays for his stay at an inn. Jesus loves Martha for that.

But that is not enough.

The Gospel will next tell the story of the Our Father, when Jesus tells the people how to pray. The Our Father asks for God’s kingdom to come on this earth and for God to “Give us this day our daily bread.” It stresses that we should trust God and participate in his action, not busy ourselves with our own action.

This is what God wants — not a people who are just outwardly Good Samaritans, Marthas who solve the world’s promises on their own, but people who “choose the better part” — him — and work to do his will on earth as it is in heaven.

The same lesson is born out in the other readings.

St. Paul says in the second reading, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.”

This is as good a description as any of the balance that needs to be struck between being a Martha and being a Mary. St. Paul is describing his service in spreading the word of God. Jesus wants the Gospel heard by all nations, but he deliberately only delivered it himself to one small group. It is their task (and now ours) to make the Good News spread. To make it spread requires a lot of work, work which brings suffering, and a lot of prayer. St. Paul sums up what the uniting of Mary and Martha looks like: “It is Christ in you, the hope for glory.”

The first reading balances a “Martha moment” with a “Mary moment,” too. Abraham is busy offering Middle-Eastern hospitality to guests, serving the best of what he has to offer, but then he is attentive to them. He sits under a tree to listen to them, and what he hears changes not just his life, but the course of history: His wife, who had been barren, will bear a son. At last, the promise given to him about the future of his home will be fulfilled.

Like Paul, Abraham is able to render his full service to God by both serving him in his actions and staying close to him in his heart.

Jesus wants those who act to do so in his name and those who pray to pray in such a way that it leads them to do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

His book What Pope Francis Really Said is available for preorder at