Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time • Year C

Bryan J. Kerns, O.S.A.
St. Ambrose Friary
Andover, Massachusetts

Gn 18:1-10a
Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 5
Col 1:24-28
Lk 10:38-42

If you’ve ever seen Downton Abbey, you know how lavish and important their dinner parties were. Exceptional service, lots of utensils, many courses, multiple stages. It was ritual the likes of which we rarely see today.

A few years ago there was a Downton Abbey film. And the plot involved a dinner party that was more important than any they’d had before, because the King and Queen were coming to Downton.

And in doing this, the King and Queen do not seek a favor from Lord and Lady Grantham, but instead they bestow a favor upon them by recognizing their home and their significance.

In a way, we can compare that to what happens in our readings today: the favor bestowed upon both Abraham, and Martha and Mary, by the presence of the Lord.

First, Abraham under the tree. The passage begins by telling us that the Lord appeared to Abraham, and that three men were there. It makes no link between those two claims. But the readers of this passage in the early church will begin to see it as a manifestation of the Divine Trinity – three men appeared, and Abraham worshipped one.

“Abraham saw three, but worshipped only one.” What a stunning sentence.

Saint Augustine will do the same thing, suggesting that the three men described are in fact the Persons of the Trinity, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Hospitality is an experience of communion, a sharing of love, giving of ourselves for the good of others.

And Abraham gives generously. He gives rolls, and even a steer, and curds and milk.

And we are certainly meant to think that the service Abraham renders to the Lord is a laudable, praiseworthy sort of service; yet is also a sign of favor granted to Abraham by the Lord – the opportunity to give the Lord hospitality, the one who has promised Abraham the blessing of land and descendants.

But then what are we to make of the Gospel we hear today?

Where Jesus seems to question the wisdom of Martha’s service? Augustine spends a lot of time with this passage. He describes the closeness of Martha and Mary to Jesus. He highlights their hospitality and even talks of how, while Martha was going to receive Jesus and feed him, she needed to be fed in the spirit.

This, too, really was a favor, Jesus presenting himself to be fed. The one who was served by angels in the desert presenting himself to be fed by Martha.

As we know, Martha was busy about the house. And Mary, Augustine tells us, chooses to be fed by the Lord.

Therein lies the tension of this passage: Martha fulfilling her obligations of hospitality, Mary fulfilling her obligation to be fed by Jesus.

Interestingly we hear nothing of what Jesus said to Mary. It’s his presence that is highlighted in this passage.

Augustine gets right to the point: Martha “was busy with many things, [while Mary] was gazing on one thing” – Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

“Martha, Martha, you are busy with many things, but there is only one thing necessary; that was the one thing Mary had chosen – listening to the Lord, being in his presence.”

No one can blame Martha for what she chose, yet what Mary chose is different, is better. Martha bore the burden of service that day. What Martha chose is good, yet what Mary chose is better. Again, Augustine: “While what Martha does keeps one busy out of need, what Mary does keeps one sweet out of love.”

The tension these sisters face is no doubt part of the way of human life. Yet the presence of the Lord in their house is what points us in a different direction. For even while our banquets and celebrations at their best provide a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, it’s the presence of the Lord in this house of Martha and Mary, and the divine manifestation that Abraham experiences, that shows us the next life will perfect the banquet.

When we find our way to the home country to which we all seek a return, the heavenly Jerusalem, there we shall be fed.

There will be no need for welcoming travelers as guests, for all will be known. There will be no one hungry, thirsty, sick, or quarreling, for all will be filled.

Just as here today at the Altar of the Lord we are fed with his Body and Blood, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

What Mary chooses in the gospel – to hear the Lord and be fed – will be complete at the heavenly banquet. But today and together we can feast on the word of the Lord, can be fed by the Body of Christ, can share in the communion of the Church as Body of Christ: all in anticipation of the great feast of heaven.

The Lord came to Martha and Mary’s house both in order to feed and be fed, to receive hospitality and welcome those who follow: let us follow so that we can be fed.