16th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Gospel – Lk 10:38-42

" Martha and Mary – Surface or Depth of Life? "


Preached by Fr Philip Heng, SJ at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 18th July 2010

We have all heard of this account of Martha and Mary many times, but I think we cannot assume that the Gospel message is clear to us. So, is good that we reflect on it more deeply. In the Gospel, we see how two sisters, Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus differently: one rushed to the kitchen to prepare food and the other sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to him.

The Gospel describes Martha as being “distracted with all the serving.” She feeling flustered and frustrated that seeing her sister Mary not lifting a finger to help her out and simply chatting away as though she was not bothered by the urgency of having to prepare the meal told Jesus very frankly, “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.” We could easily imagine and feel that Martha was upset with Jesus for condoning the irresponsible behaviour of her sister who seemed to have no sense of helping around in the house. Does this reaction and attitude of Martha remind us of how we too sometimes react at home?

Martha being a hospitable person was right in insisting that everyone in the house should help out in attending to the needs of guests. To Martha, she must have been thinking to herself, “Let us get the work done first, and then we can always talk later.” In many ways, Martha was right. However, Jesus’ answer revealed a deeper truth when He said, “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken away from her.” Does this remind us of how we too may fret and fuss over 90% of things that are not important in life?

What is Jesus trying to say to Martha and to each of us here today? I think Jesus is speaking about our need for “depth” in life. He is inviting each of us to be more fully aware that in life, there are two basic levels of reality – the surface and the depth. At the surface of things, persons and happenings in our daily living, we can do much, but what is more important in life is to get in touch with its deeper meanings.

I can still vividly remember the scene of my mother showing us with great joy and pride the whole set of bright emerald and diamond studded jewelry that my dad had at bought for her. As I recall the scene today, I could still see and sense vividly how my mom’s great happiness was primarily because the gift was my dad’s way of saying to my mom that “I have not taken you for granted; I love you very much for all your years of sacrifices, worries and pain in bringing up all our 8 children and for all that you have been to me all these years. . . .”

We all know that we can buy someone a diamond ring that cost $50,000, but if the gift is not an expression of the deep love and commitment we have to the person, then while the diamond may glitter brightly and beautifully, and while it may attract the admiration of many friends, in the end the gift would remain hollow, unless it is founded on the deeper reality of love.

Our faith in Jesus is the same. Martha was serving selflessly and fretting over many things, but she missed the real point of Jesus’ visit to her home. Jesus wanted to relate to her in a personal way through sharing the Truth about God’s Word, but Martha was preoccupied with the externals.

At one of our family gatherings, I remember one of my relatives remarking that so and so priest was excellent at Mass today. I asked him why? He said, “Oh, his homily was so short!” I then asked him, “What did the priest preach on? He embarrassingly said, “I don’t know!”

We may be coming to Sunday Masses weekly and regularly, but if we rush in and out of Mass, if we are the last to arrive and the first to leave, if we find coming to Mass to be burdensome because the homilies are boring, the singing is not up to our standards, or the parking is inconvenient, then like Martha, we have missed the point of why we are here. The Eucharist is the most solemn and most beautiful expression of our faith of God our Lord’s gift of saving all of us from our sinfulness and sustaining us in our life’s journey on earth so that we can all share the divine happiness that God wants to give us for all eternity.

But, if we are able to sense the deeper meaning of what the Mass is about, then we would want to participate more actively and attentively at every word proclaimed in the Gospel, and relish at every prayer that is being said in the Mass especially the Eucharistic prayer. If we were to go to a banquet and did not eat much because we are rushing off to watch the world cup match, then all the food and preparations would have been in vain; not because the food was not great, but because our hearts were not present at the celebration.

There’s a story of Pedro Arrupe, a brilliant 19 year old Spanish medical doctor who was once present in Lourdes in August 1926. Pedro had been winning prizes in anatomical studies and therapeutics at the University of Madrid; everyone knew that he would be a great doctor some day. Pedro was given permission to study closely the sick who sort cures at the shrine.

One day, while Pedro was standing in front of Grotto of Our Lady with his sisters a middle-aged woman, probably his mother was pushing a young man, probably her son, on a wheelchair passed them. The young man was all twisted and contorted by what seemed like a polio disease. The mother was constantly praying the Rosary while she wheeled her son to the row where the Bishop would later pass by as he brings out the Blessed Sacrament to bless everyone, especially the sick and suffering. At the blessing, when the Bishop stopped to bless the sick, the young man looked at the Host with such great faith that he instantly experienced the healing power of Christ. He then immediately, jumped up from his wheelchair – completely cured. The crowd cried out joyously, “Miracle! Miracle!”

Pedro was deeply moved by what he saw. As he had special permission to study the case of the cure, he finally concluded when asked, “The Lord has truly cured the young man.” When Pedro returned to Madrid, his fellow students saw that he looked dazed. Yes, Pedro admitted, “I am dazed because I cannot get my mind off the miracle of the paralyzed young man and the more I ponder on it, the more amazed I am about power of God’s presence in the world and in our lives.” Three months later, Pedro Arrupe gave up his Medical profession and joined the Jesuits at Loyola, Spain. He later became a very renowned and well loved Superior General of the Jesuits for 15 years.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, like all the miracles that Jesus performed this miracle of Lourdes did not transform the hearts of everyone who witnessed it. The truth remains that if Father Pedro Arrupe did not allow the miracle to seep into his heart and transform him he would have probably remained a good medical doctor, and never become a Jesuit, let alone becoming our great Superior General for 15 years.

God is constantly present in our daily living and powerfully and profoundly present here now in our Eucharist, and in all our Eucharists. We could all continue to be like Martha and be caught up in the externals of everything that happens or we could continue to give big diamond rings to each other, but we must not forget that the essence of the gift is the love and the commitment of the gift. Alternatively, we could choose to live our lives at the deeper level of reality like Mary, who focused her attention on Truth of God’s Word in her life.

Let us open our hearts and minds to the challenges of today’s Gospel of Christ to be more like Mary where our lives are lived and built on the reality of our relationship with God and that we continue to strive to love Him and serve Him in all things, people and situations. If we can do this eternal life is ours and we will also be able to have glimpses of what eternal happiness is like through the joy, peace and love that God will give us in our daily living .


Fr Philip Heng, S.J.

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