Father Donald Senior, CP

Like Mary, take some time to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen

July 11, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

July 17: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Gn 18:1-10; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-4

Veterans may remember this byline, “The difficult now, the impossible later,” the dynamic motto of the Seabees, a branch of the U.S. Navy that prides itself on handling the toughest assignments. Those brave words popped into my mind when reviewing the readings for this Sunday.

The first reading is the story about Abraham and Sarah, the “parents of Israel,” found in the book of Genesis. Camping by a terebinth tree at Mamre, near present-day Hebron, Abraham welcomes three unexpected visitors who in one of the most mysterious encounters in the Bible, somehow represent the divine presence. In typical Middle Eastern fashion, the patriarch offers them hospitality, instructing Sarah to prepare a meal of bread and beef and milk — quite sumptuous for nomads!

When the meal is finished, the real action of the story begins. The segment in the Lectionary today only hints at what will follow. One of the visitors predicts that when they return next year, Sarah will have borne a son. Left out of the passage here — but essential to grasp what is happening — is the fact that Sarah is ninety years old!

In the previous chapter of Genesis, Abraham himself had heard from God that he would conceive a son with Sarah. Hiding his face in the crook of his elbow (he had fallen prostrate in awe before this vision of the divine), Abraham had laughed out loud when trying to imagine a child being born to “a man who is a hundred years old” and to a woman who is ninety! (Gn 17:17).

Now it is Sarah’s turn to laugh at what these three visitors predict! Hearing her laugh while hiding behind the tent flap, the visitor states the powerful message of this story: “Is anything impossible for the Lord?” The God of life whom Abraham and Sarah worshipped was able to bring life from barrenness.

We have another domestic scene in Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary. Evidence in both Luke’s and John’s Gospels suggests that Jesus stayed with this family, including Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, when he visited Jerusalem. Bethany was — and still is — a small village on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. But here the focus is on the two sisters and interpreting the story has been a challenge for centuries.

Martha complains that her sister is not helping prepare the meal, while Mary lingers at the feet of Jesus, drinking in every word he speaks. Jesus chides Martha — with a smile I believe because he loved her, too — “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

What does Jesus mean? Some see here an affirmation of the superiority of the contemplative over the active life — monks and cloistered sisters are better off! But others see something deeper and wider here: Mary is depicted as a disciple of Jesus. Being with him, learning from him, loving him.

As in so many other Gospel sayings, following Jesus is more fundamental and compelling than any of the other important responsibilities we have. So would-be disciples are invited to leave behind family and friends, even to “let the dead bury the dead” in order to follow Jesus. Not because these obligations are insignificant — like Martha’s preparing a meal for Jesus and her family — but following Jesus is the “one thing” needed that gives meaning to everything else.

Trusting Jesus and the God of infinite love he both proclaims and embodies is the message that rings out from both of these readings. We can feel “barren” — not just physically but spiritually, too — agitated, worried and weary about all the things we have to do. But the God of life who created us and sustains us can do the “impossible” and restore our spirits, refreshing our minds and heart, reminding us that we are children of God. Like Mary we need to take some time to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen.


  • scripture
  • middle east