Ordinary 16 Year C
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Luke 10: 38 — 42
This short, but wonderful portion of the Gospel according to St Luke has been one of the most debated over the past 500 years. Sadly it is easily misinterpreted and therefore is much abused.
The writing plan and structure used in Luke indicate very clearly that this short account is connected to the parable of the “Good Samaritan”, which stressed practical helpfulness, i.e. the right action, when and where it is needed. Now St. Luke stresses the basic necessity of faith and prayer — being open to God’s inspiration (in-breathing, enlightenment) when He chooses to give it.
This little lesson has proved a stumbling block to some; but those who hear its message come to find it a beautiful healing balm. In being given a glimpse of this event, we should remember that we are therefore, obviously with the approval of Our Lord’s close friends, Mary and Martha, taken into the privacy of their home and shown the love and friendship among those mentioned in the account.
Our short lesson makes just one single point. Those who simply will not be silent, and listen so they can hear fully what God wants, instead of forging ahead with their own designs and intentions miss that point. This short piece of Scripture demonstrates the priority Jesus gives to seeking mature knowledge about, and responses to Him and His message.
Some Reflections on Our Text
As they continued their journey he entered a village where
a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
Our passage opens with Jesus and His band of followers (the twelve plus others) continuing on their meandering journey to Jerusalem. Recall that St. Luke presents this as a spiritual journey rather than a mere geographical one. For that reason he did not name the village.
It is well known that Jesus made His way to a family home where he was always welcome to call unannounced. While a number of His followers would have gone off to arrange their own accommodation, our Lord relaxes with a few of His close disciples in the home ― old friends, and begins to talk of spiritual things.
She had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his
feet listening to him speak.
It was very much an ancient Jewish practice for a devoted rabbi to choose to make spiritual conversation:
“Let thy house be a place of meeting for the Wise, and dust
thyself with the dust of their feet, and drink their words
with thirst. (“M.Avot 1.4)
Mary, interestingly, doesn’t really look on our Lord as a guest. He is so welcome there, He in fact belongs there as part of the extended family. She had discerned that He had not come to be fed, so much as to feed: that He wanted to impart some spiritual teaching to those who were so special to Him. And He could demonstrate this great truth most openly in a home where He was loved and known, in a sense, where He belonged.
Mary therefore, “sat beside the Lord at His feet listening ….. .” This is the unmistakable formula describing the situation of rabbi’s disciple, enlisted in His talmadim ― His circle of devoted followers.
The term “sat” here refers rather to the attitude of mind and
heart with which Mary was listening to the counsels and
teaching of the Saviour, than to the posture she took.
As an interesting aside at this point it is well attested that our Lord was the only rabbi at that time who was known to accept women disciples on an equal basis with men.
St. Augustine made the observation that:
“While Martha is occupied in feeding the Lord, Mary
is absorbed in taking food ― spiritual food ― from Him.”
She thus shows herself a devout and attentive disciple, keeping the Lord’s sayings, and pondering them in her heart (Sadler). In this, the early Fathers compared her with the mother of Jesus who did the same (Luke 2: 19).
Mary’s response to our Lord is very important to observe. The words, “listening to Him speak” refer to a very specific, God-given command (conveyed through Moses ― see Deuteronomy 6: 4.):
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is Lord alone”.
This is the command to LISTEN to God and His representatives as one’s first mitzvah ― obligation ― and to listen with a view to carrying out His Word.
Every Jew knew this meant:
“You shall love God with all your heart, and with all your
soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6: 5)
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD. ” (Leviticus 19: 18)
“There is no other Commandment greater than these.”
(Mark 12: 31)
“The whole Law and the Prophets depend on these two
Commandments.” (Matthew 22: 40)
In this account, Mary is not ignoring the need to show hospitality to Jesus. Rather, she gives precedence to God’s requirement that His people be ever listening for His intimations and teaching, as and when He chooses to impart them. Mary discerned the moment Jesus entered their home, that He wanted to speak spiritual things above all else. In this way, she demonstrated genuine and truly spiritual hospitality ― for she gave the Lord her undivided attention.
That is the required standard of one who is to be a disciple of Jesus Messiah.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said,
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself
to do the serving? Tell her to help me.”
Martha, however, would have none of that, and, with all the very best intentions, was distracted by all the preparations necessary if they were ever going to get a meal. In our reflection on this text, let us note the Greek text which St Luke wrote, stated literally that Martha “was being dragged around“. This is a phrase which was used figuratively to show that her duties kept her going backwards and forwards in perpetual motion. In other words, they had taken possession and control of her. She thus became distracted and allowed her attention to wander. As a result she found she could not listen and think about the meal preparation at the same time. An unfortunate chain of cause and effect was now well in place. Martha’s impatience with the pair of them having a spiritual discussion reached a point where she judged their action to be entirely out of order. She walked up to Jesus and, under the guise of a question, gave him a “piece of her mind,” in the nicest possible way:
“Rabbi, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the
work by myself. Tell her to help me!”
In other words, “This is not the time to bury yourselves in spiritual conversation when I want to get a meal ready and make sure you are properly fed. Would you please stop it right now and let her do what she is supposed to be doing!” (Meaning ― what I think she is supposed to be doing!)
The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are
anxious and worried about many things.
Our Lord, of course, is well aware that He has just been given a gentle telling-off by someone who thinks the world of Him. After all, Martha had dropped everything the moment Jesus arrived, and decided He was going to have a good, solid meal. Nothing was too much trouble for her — and nothing was going to get in the way of her serving up what she thought He needed: and it was going to be nothing but the best!
Jesus, deeply admiring her loving service, interrupts her little outpouring:
“Martha, Martha, ….. .”
Just the way He responded shows He understands how she feels, and He loves her for her devotion. When she has calmed down enough, Jesus continues:
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many
The Greek word for “worried” shows an agitated state of mind. The word “upset” indicates the outward noise and commotions she is causing. So Martha is inwardly anxious and outwardly restless. It was not that she had too much to do, but that she was making herself too busy with things, which were inappropriate in the circumstances.
“In fact, the plain literal meaning of the circumstance must
be that Jesus bids Martha not to go to such trouble for the sake
of her unexpected guests; it is embarrassing for them to be the
cause of it.” (R. Ginns, O.P.)
There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the
better part and it will not be taken from her.”
Some have understood the opening sentence in verse 42 to imply something like:
“I didn’t come here for a three course meal! Soup and
toast would be more than adequate. No need to exhaust
This would certainly fit the scene. However, in rabbinic style, Jesus appears to be talking on two levels at the same time. Thus He calmly states His mind:
“There is just one thing you really need to be concerned about and that is the one thing I really came here for.”
Following this highlighting of His personal intentions, He then completes His reply to Martha:
“Mary has chosen to be concerned about that thing.”
From the way that text is presented we can discern what our Lord is saying, in effect:
“Mary’s choice is a good one ― good in that it fits my
template of the ‘good’ disciple. She has chosen to listen
to me with undivided attention because she could see that,
above all, I wanted to talk of knowing, loving and serving
God. And the spiritual communion and friendship which
we share now will remain with her forever.”
It’s very easy to slip into a rut and judge the responses of the two
sisters as good and bad, right and wrong, and so on. But this would
miss the point. “Jesus does not condemn Martha for her work,
but merely wishes to show that to listen to His counsels and
teaching is more important than any other work we can perform.”
(Callan, O. P.)
The starving, the downtrodden, the abused and deprived all need our attention ― urgently. Jesus demonstrated that He came to liberate all people in need, from their predicament, and He worked tirelessly for others. The point is that all good works must proceed from the love of God and His Divine Will. Thjey must be seen to be His love in action. We must not attribute them to ourselves nor let others do so ― but always to God’s mercy and lovingkindness. His Law precedes all else ― so all our good deeds are a reflection of His love for humanity. When we keep close to His teaching, we will be empowered to see all in need as our family, and not deny anyone what we can do to help them.
As noted earlier, our short lesson makes a single point: remain spiritually attuned to the living Word of God — Jesus Christ our Messiah. Only then will we remain in harmony with the Divine order. Martha chose to set her own order of priorities. If we are not careful, we can make the same mistake as Martha and mislead people in search of the Christian vision.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Our Lord reminds
us of our obligation to love God with all our might and our
neighbour as ourself. The emphasis St. Luke demonstrates
in this account, helps refine our understanding of this
principle. “The Word of the Lord has first claim. For the
disciple, an attitude of learning and obedience takes first
place …..… Martha must now learn to give the Lord and
His Word priority, even over loving service.” (Walter Leifeld)
In applying this, we need to take care not to over-emphasise either Martha in her activity or Mary in her contemplative frame of mind. We must balance each of these dimensions in our lives as befits our circumstances. It is not that one aspect is more important than the other, but rather that one ― the contemplation of the Divine Word ― must precede all else.
All cannot be monastic contemplatives, but, as this teaching of our Lord demonstrates, all can and must give priority to listening to Him.
The great lesson is that Martha, a wonderful, devout and deeply spiritual person, on this occasion, missed seeing and hearing what our Lord wanted to convey. The challenge for all of us, amongst all the responsibilities of our everyday life, is to learn to listen to Him in the depths of our heart, yet not abandon what we are supposed to be doing. The practice of simple, regular meditation on the Divine Word will gradually develop within us the skill to hear the Living Word of God ― our Lord Jesus Christ ― and empower us to think and act as His devoted disciples (talmidim) and thereby be bearers of His mercy and lovingkindness in our grief stricken world. We too will thus be able to enjoy a close friendship with Him which will not be taken away from us. That, He has promised!
For those who would like a detailed study resource
on the readings for Sunday, please visit:
Agape Bible Study — Ordinary 16 ― Year C
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just scroll down the page.
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Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature
(Mark 16: 15)
Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Ordinary 12 Year C Luke 10: 38 — 42
1. There are many examples in the life of the Church, when people have
2. By spending a little time each day devoted to spiritual matters we are more
3. In the story of Mary and Martha, Our Lord shows that He was indeed,
Let us pray for one another to give listening to the Lord Jesus first priority in
John 10: 38 — 42
Ordinary 16 Year C
38 13 As they continued their journey he entered a village where a
39 14 She had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his
40 Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord,
41 The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and
42 15 There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part
13 [38-42] The story of Martha and Mary further illustrates the importance of hearing the words of the teacher and the concern with women in Luke.
14  Sat beside the Lord at his feet: it is remarkable for first-century Palestinian Judaism that a woman would assume the posture of a disciple at the master’s feet (see also ⇒ Luke 8:35; ⇒ Acts 22:3), and it reveals a characteristic attitude of Jesus toward women in this gospel (see ⇒ Luke 8:2-3).
15  There is need of only one thing: some ancient versions read, “there is need of few things”; another important, although probably inferior, reading found in some manuscripts is, “there is need of few things, or of one.”
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible,