The account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha is well known. Let’s think about some of the elements contained in the story.
Mary and Martha are close friends and disciples of Jesus. They’ve opened their home to him and a number of his other disciples and so have taken on the sacred obligation of hospitality. In the first reading for this Sunday we see what Middle Eastern hospitality involves.
Three strangers appear at the entrance to Abraham’s tent. He runs up to them inviting them to rest under the shade of the Terebinth tree. He has their feet washed, commands Sarah to make bread, and has his servants prepare a choice steer for their dinner. There’s no limit to Middle Eastern hospitality.
As Jesus is teaching his disciples it would be presumed that his hosts, Mary and Martha, would be running about making sure that the guests’ feet are washed, that they’re given something to drink and begin preparing food for them. Martha is fully committed to these tasks of hospitality. Mary, on the other hand, is brazenly breaking two strong social norms. She’s ignoring the obligation of hospitality and, she’s sitting with the men! Martha’s protest is quite understandable.
When Jesus tells Martha that Mary has “chosen the better part,” he’s inaugurating a radical new way, the Christian way. Saint Paul make it very clear. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) As disciples we’re asked to take up the radical, counter-cultural way of life Jesus modeled. We can’t allow anything to separate us from one another. Sometimes we even have to break the social norms. Sometimes we have to “welcome sinners and eat with them.”
Jesus, when asked by a “scholar of the Law,” what he must do to inherit eternal life, threw the question back into the scholar’s court. “What is written in the Law. How do you read it?” The answer was right on the tip of his tongue. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, (Deuteronomy 6:5) “and your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) But knowing the answer and putting it into practice are two very different things. So, the scholar, “to justify himself,” asked Jesus a second question: “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus gave him a very down-to-earth example. He told him a story.
The story takes place along a 20 mile stretch of road that runs from Jerusalem, about 2,300 feet above sea level, to Jericho, about 1,300 feet below sea level. It’s a rough road with lots of twists and turns, and plenty of places for robbers to hide. A very imprudent man decided to walk the trek alone. Sure enough, he was attacked. Not only was he robbed but badly beaten and left for dead.
Jesus then inserted two people into the story. The first was a priest. At the time, many priests and wealthy citizens lived in Jericho. It was a pleasant oasis and was far less crowded then the Holy City with its continual stream of pilgrims. Yet it wasn’t so far from Jerusalem to discourage the periodic trip to serve at the temple. On his way to perform his ritual duty, the priest looked over at the man, but presuming that he was dead, didn’t dare go over to check on him lest he make himself unclean by touching a dead body. He would remain ritually impure for seven days and so be unable to fulfill his duty at the temple.
The second person to walk down the road was a Levite, a man assigned to a lesser role in the temple cult. He looked over at the man and, like the priest, made the decision to move on to Jerusalem without getting involved in this messiness. With these two examples Jesus was turning a subtle light on an important moral question. Is caring for someone in need less important than fulfilling a religious ritual?
The story continues with the appearance of a Samaritan businessman. The Samaritans were despised because they had broken from the Jewish communion when they erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim in Samaria, the area between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. This man had no hesitation. He immediately went over to him. Discovering that he was still alive he proceeded to clean his wounds with wine, seal them with some oil, and bandage them. He put the man on his own animal and brought him to a local inn that he would regularly frequent. After caring for the man overnight, he paid the innkeeper up front to cover the length of the victim’s stay, promising when he returned again, to pay for any added expenses if the man needed to stay longer.
The priest, the Levite and the Samaritan had no idea who this man was. He had gotten himself into trouble by traveling along a dangerous road by himself. He had been left to die along the side of the road. All three men saw him. All three recognized his distress. Jesus then hit the “scholar of the Law’ with an easily answered question. “Which of the three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?”
On the way home from Mass today take note of the people you see who are in distress. Are any of them your neighbor?
Last week the scriptures asked us to ponder God’s personal call to us. It reminded us that it demands a total commitment on our part. This week the Gospel focuses on the teaching Jesus gave to his apostles to prepare them for their first missionary journey. His words to them are meant for us, too.
He began with a serious caution. “I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” Our call to announce, in word and deed, that “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” brings with it many challenges. The Kingdom of God will often be in contradiction with the world we live in. We have to be prepared for that. When a “different” kind of power emerges, it’s often perceived as a threat. When we put ourselves into God’s hands we break our allegiance to the world. We become countercultural. We become free and independent agents who are no longer under the control of the values and power structures of the world.
Jesus continued his instruction by telling the apostles not to carry a money bag. In other words, don’t expect wealth and riches if you commit yourself to the Kingdom. Wealth and riches are a benchmark of success in the world, no so in the Kingdom. St. Paul, the greatest missionary of the early Church, said when speaking of his ministry, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Our power, God’s power, is love – selfless love – love that doesn’t demand anything in return. What we give, we give freely. We expect nothing in return.
Jesus also told the apostles to accept food and lodging from people. He wanted them to trust not only in God, but also in the goodness of others. They were to repay whatever hospitality they received with a blessing of peace. The reign of peace in one’s heart is the sign of the presence of the Kingdom of God within us.
Our Gospel passage ends with the return of the 72 disciples from their first missionary excursion. They came back rejoicing because even demons were subject to them through the name of Jesus. In spite of the success they enjoyed, Jesus cautioned them, and us, not to let success go to our heads because success can feed our hunger for worldly power. When we labor in the vineyard of the Lord, we must always keep in mind that our success is from God and not from us.
Jesus’ final words to us are so very important. “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”
We begin this Sunday’s reflection with the account of the call of the prophet Elisha. It was just an ordinary day for Elisha. He was plowing his field, but God had directed Israel’s greatest prophet, Elijah, to anoint Elisha as his successor. When he found him, Elijah immediately placed his cloak over Elisha’s shoulders. God’s invitation came through that simple gesture. Elijah had passed on his prophetic mantle. It was a serious moment. Elisha’s response was immediate and radical. He asked permission to give a final kiss to his father and mother. He then slaughtered the oxen that had been pulling his plow and used the wood of the plow to offer them up as a holocaust to God. In that sacrifice he offered his entire past to God. Freed of any and all attachments, he left everything he knew and followed the prophet Elijah.
The theme of “the call” is taken up and developed in the Gospel. We begin with a scene of failure.
Jesus and the apostles were on their way to Jerusalem and were passing through Samaria. The apostles went ahead of him in an attempt to do some preliminary preaching but they were rejected by the people. They were filled with anger against the Samaritans. “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Their anger was met with a rebuke from Jesus. He redirected their vision and continued on the missionary journey.
As they traveled along, Jesus was inviting people to follow him. He met one rejection after another. They weren’t hostile rejections, however. There were half-hearted acceptances of his invitation. “First, let me go and bury my father.” “Let me say farewell to my family at home.”
Jesus clearly wanted more from them. “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God!” He wanted them to break from their past just as Elisha the prophet did. “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” And to those who said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go,” he raised a serious caution. “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
These scriptures are a reminder for us. We’ve been called, too. Seriously, we’ve been called! We’re not here in this church by accident. We’ve been anointed – baptized into the life and mission of Jesus. Yes, quite seriously, each of us has been called, just as the prophets were called, just as the apostles were called. Today, the Church is reminding us of the radical nature of that calling.
Today we’re being asked to assess our response to Jesus’ call. What does it mean for me to be a follower of Christ? How does it touch my everyday life? How does it touch the people I meet and work with every day? How radical is my response to the call? Do I keep looking back?
Today, we’re invited to raise a renewed and radical “yes’ to God’s personal call.
Before you read this reflection look up to the Latin text that surrounds this church. It’s the first two stanzas of a hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas. The text begins in the sanctuary on the left side of the high altar, continues along the south side of the church, and concludes at the spot where the text began – the left side of the high altar. The text and the translation follow.
Lauda Sion Salvatorem,
Lauda ducem et pastorem,
In hymnis et canticis.
Quantum potes, tantum laude,
Quia maior omni laude,
Nec laudare suffices.
Laudis thema specialis,
Panis vivus et vitalis
Quem in sacrae mensa cenae,
Turbae fractrum duodenae
Datum non ambigitur.
Zion, praise the Savior,
praise the Shepherd and King
with Hymns and canticles.
As much as you can, as much as you
dare to raise up the greatest praise
it is insufficient.
Today we lift up the unique theme,
the living, and life-giving bread.
There is no ambiguity
about the meaning of the sacred
meal that was shared by the band of
Whenever we’re in this church, the memory of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist is ever-present in these words of St. Thomas Aquinas. They remind us to reflect on the miracle of the sacred meal, the bread and the wine – the body and blood – the Eucharist. There isn’t any ambiguity about what we believe. Our Lord is always with us, continually offering himself to us as food for everlasting life.
Jesus calls us to gather around the sacred table just as he gathered the Twelve. He says to us what he said to them: “Take it, this is my body.” He’s telling us that he’s giving us his all – every fiber of his being. He telling us, “This is my blood of the covenant.” He’s inviting us into a new relationship – a covenant relationship with God.
When we eat the sacred bread of Christ’s body, and drink the wine of the covenant, his blood shed as a sacrificial offering for the redemption of the world, we’re invited into a deeply intimate relationship with God and one another. St. Paul teaches us, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”
Before you leave this church today I encourage you to look around. Every window speaks of the Eucharist. There are representations of the Passover, the Last Supper, the multiplication of the loaves and fish, the washing of the disciples’ feet. Most importantly, our Eucharistic Lord is present on the altar for our adoration, our prayer and our praise.
Before you leave the church today spend some quiet time in adoration. Lift your own hymn of praise to the Lord who sustains you with his body and blood, and who unites you into an intimate relationship with the Father, and our brothers and sisters in faith. Pray Jesus’ Last Supper prayer: “May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21) Thank Jesus for the greatest gift he could have ever given us, his body and blood in the Eucharist.