Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This little story in the gospel today has a way of getting into our hearts. Many people would see this as being very unfair to Martha; after all she was being very hospitable. There are many ways of interpreting this passage and I would like to give you three different interpretations.

  1. The first one is the most common interpretation, and it is that this story speaks about the contemplative life and the active life. Martha is symbolic of the active life, people who spend their lives constantly doing good. They are doers. Mary is symbolic of the contemplative life. One thing that is worth noting is that a basic principle that you will find in many places in the Bible is that listening has to come before acting. This is a chronological thing. Sometimes we act without attending to what God wants or what is best for us, and we get into deep trouble. David wanted to build a temple for the Lord, but the Prophet Nathan told him this is not what God wants and he didn’t go ahead with his plans. The great Ghandi said: “the highest form of worship is silence”. Another fact that is worth noting as well is that we are not a contemplative society, that’s why there are so many people who would defend Martha and identify themselves with Martha in this story. How many times when you ask people how they are: I am very busy. Action without contemplation is problematic.
  2. A second interpretation is the one and the many. Jesus said to Martha: “Martha you worry and fret about so many things, but only one is necessary and Mary has chosen the better part”. We need to focus our mind on the one thing that is necessary, and all things will fall into place. Martha is lost in doing so many important and good things, but Mary is anchored and focused in the one thing that is necessary. Cardinal Bernardin, the late Archbishop of Chicago, when he learned that he had terminal cancer said: ‘I came to realise how much of what consumes our daily life is trivial and insignificant’.
  3. A third interpretation which is that Jesus is overturning the social conventions of his time. Jesus wanted to show how dysfunctional society was and is. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, he spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well, he touches people who are unclean, he forgave the woman caught in adultery, etc. At the time of Jesus, the social customs was that women would be in the kitchen, and the men would sit in with the Rabbi. Martha was upset because Mary was doing what men usually do. What Jesus is doing here is he is overturning this principle and he is inviting women into full discipleship. In the kingdom of God there are no divisions, we are all equal and therefore he is praising Mary. Mary could be seen here as the prototype of all the great women in the Church, The great Edith Stein, St. Therese of Avila, Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

The invitation of Jesus in this story is to focus on what is most important in our lives. The ability to bring everything to God in prayer is a powerful antidote against depression anger and isolation. The American psychotherapist and writer Thomas Moore says: There is no doubt but that some people could spare themselves the expense and trouble of psychotherapy simply by giving themselves a few minutes each day for quiet reflection. This simple act would provide what is missing in their lives – a period of non-doing that is essential nourishment to the soul’.