Father Donald Senior, CP

July 21: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The better part

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

The Sunday readings offer two wonderful stories involving biblical women. Genesis 18 contains one of the most intriguing incidents in the Bible.

Abraham and Sarah, the great ancestral parents of Israel, are camped under a terebinth tree near Mamre, close to Hebron. Unexpectedly, they are met by three men who turn out to be angelic visitors mysteriously embodying the divine presence. Overwhelmed, Abraham runs to greet them and offer them hospitality, urging them to stay and rest in the shade of the tree. He alerts Sarah and a feast is prepared for them.

During the meal, they ask Abraham, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” In the manner of a traditional clan culture, she does not join in the meal, but wants to know what is going on so is standing behind the tent flap listening. One of the visitors unexpectedly claims: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.”  

Regrettably, the lectionary ends the story here, leaving out what, in many ways, is its best part. The reader of Genesis already knows that Abraham and Sarah have no children, which is a tragedy in a clan culture that depended on bearing heirs.

Moreover, they are both elderly and Sarah is far beyond child-bearing years. Earlier, when, in a vision, God had promised Abraham a multitude of offspring, the patriarch laughed: “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah give birth at 90?” (Gn 17:17). 

Now this preposterous promise to bear a child is repeated by the visitor and it is Sarah’s turn to laugh as she hides behind the tent flap: “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?” The visitor (explicitly identified as “the Lord”) challenges her: “Why did Sarah laugh?” She denies it, but the visitor says, “Yes, you did.” 

Then the point of the story is driven home: “Is anything too marvelous for the Lord to do?” These are the very words the angel Gabriel will say to Mary in announcing that Elizabeth, another childless and elderly woman, would bear a child (Lk 1:17). Sarah would bear Isaac and be living proof of a fundamental biblical conviction — that God can bring abundant life in unexpected ways.

This Sunday’s Gospel passage, in a different mode, also affirms a fundamental biblical conviction. Luke’s account of Mary and Martha has frequently been interpreted as a contrast between the contemplative life (Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus) and active life (Martha busy with preparing the meal) with Jesus’ words chiding Martha seeming to endorse the superiority of the contemplative life. But there may be a deeper meaning in this familiar story. 

While the role typically assigned to women in traditional cultures is that of domestic service, as illustrated by Martha, here Jesus endorses Mary’s role as a full disciple, sitting at the feet of Jesus and “listening to him.” This is another version of the command given to the first disciples: “Follow me.”

Jesus does not exclude Martha’s work from the realm of authentic Christian service but underscores the “better part,” which is choosing to follow Jesus and his teaching before all else. This fundamental commitment of discipleship “will not be taken away from [Mary].”

There is strong evidence throughout the New Testament that women responded to Jesus and were considered his disciples. That spilled over into the early church with the many women who had leading roles in the community despite the strong patriarchal cast of Roman society. We think, for example, of Paul’s coworkers such as Priscilla, Phoebe, Lydia and the nine women listed in his greetings at the end of his letter to the Romans, some of whom he calls his “coworkers” and “fellow apostles.”

We are becoming more aware of the essential role of women within the life of the church and its mission. In the United States, for example, we know that women have led the way, too often unacknowledged, in the church’s mission to heal and to teach. They have chosen the better part.



  • scripture