Reading I: Genesis 18:1-10
Psalm 15: 2-3, 3-4, 5
Reading II: Colossians 1: 24-28
Gospel: Luke 10: 38-42
THE BETTER PART
Women play key yet somewhat enigmatic roles in both today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis and the selection from the Gospel of Luke.
In the first we have one of the most intriguing incidents in the Bible. Israel’s great ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, are camped under the terebinth tree at Mamre near Hebron. On a hot day three mysterious visitors appear and, while we are not told how it was so, Abraham senses that these visitors embody the Divine Presence and bows down to greet them reverently!
Naturally, Abraham is anxious that they would stay for a while and offers them elaborate hospitality: a bath, a place to rest in the shade of the tree, and he urges his wife Sarah to prepare a lush meal of fresh bread, cool milk, and some tender beef, the best of the herd.
The point of the story comes at the end. The three visitors ask for Sarah—we learn that all this time she has been hiding behind a tent flap listening to the conversation. One of them declares, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.”
Unfortunately, the editors of the Lectionary left out the crucial final paragraph that gives this story its punch. When Sarah hears the visitor’s prediction, she laughs, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” Earlier in Genesis 17, Abraham himself had “laughed” when God told him he would have a son: “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah give birth at ninety?”
But the visitor catches Sarah’s laugh and asks, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” And then comes the memorable line, that will be repeated by the Angel Gabriel in his announcement to Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she hears the startling news that she is to conceive a son: “Is anything too wonderful for God?” Sarah tries to deny that she laughed, but the visitor knows: “O yes, you did laugh!”
The creative power of God overcomes the sterility of Sarah and Abraham and brings wonderful new life in her son-to-be, Isaac, and an assured future for Israel; just as through Mary, a virgin who protested that she “did not know man,” would bring the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus, into our world.
The gospel selection from Luke puts the spotlight on two women friends of Jesus, Martha and Mary (they also have a significant role in John’s Gospel). This scene where Martha is busy preparing a meal and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listing to him, has triggered a multitude of interpretations. Does Jesus’ defense of Mary— “Mary has chosen the better part” — favor the contemplative over the active life? Is Jesus challenging the presumed domestic roles assigned to women and portraying Mary as free to be a disciple? Or, similarly, is this scene affirming that listening to Jesus and learning from him is the foundation for all discipleship, more fundamental than any activity, however valuable?
We can perhaps find support for this last view in another passage in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the sower (Luke 8:15). The seeds that “fall on rich soil” are the ones who when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart, and bear fruit through perseverance.” This is surely a description of Mary in Luke’s Gospel. As the gospel drama begins, Luke portrays Mary as listening intently to the word brought to her by Gabriel, “turning it over in her heart,” and bringing forth from her very body the Word of God made flesh.
It would be hard to make the case that the Jesus who feeds the multitudes and, in John’s Gospel, serves his disciples breakfast by the Sea of Galilee, would ever disparage the domestic service Martha performs. But Luke and all the New Testament would affirm that authentic Christian charity and service of every form find their foundation and motivation in awareness of God’s love for us revealed through Jesus.
This column is adapted from Donald Senior’s regular column, Perspectives on Scripture, that appears weekly in The Chicago Catholic. Used with permission.