Entertaining God: The 16th Sunday of OT

Entertaining God: The 16th Sunday of OT


This Sunday, as we continue to accompany Jesus on his fateful journey to Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke, we are confronted with a pair of Readings in which human beings host a meal for God: Abraham for the LORD in the First Reading; Martha and Mary for Jesus in the Gospel.  But is it really possible for us to “do God a favor” by giving him a nice meal?  We are going to discover that, while God graciously accepts our services, it’s really about what God does for us, not what we can do for him.
1.  The First Reading is Gn 18:1-10a:


The LORD appeared to Abraham by the terebinth of Mamre,
as he sat in the entrance of his tent,
while the day was growing hot.
Looking up, Abraham saw three men standing nearby.
When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them;
and bowing to the ground, he said:
“Sir, if I may ask you this favor,
please do not go on past your servant.
Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet,
and then rest yourselves under the tree.
Now that you have come this close to your servant,
let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves;
and afterward you may go on your way.”
The men replied, “Very well, do as you have said.”

Abraham hastened into the tent and told Sarah,
“Quick, three measures of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls.”
He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice steer,
and gave it to a servant, who quickly prepared it.
Then Abraham got some curds and milk,
as well as the steer that had been prepared,
and set these before the three men;
and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.

They asked Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?”
He replied, “There in the tent.”
One of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year,
and Sarah will then have a son.”

This very beautiful and mysterious narrative has always suggested a mystical appearance of the Holy Trinity in the Christian tradition, and countless icons have taken their inspiration from it.
Certainly there is an intriguing interplay of one and three in the text.  The text says, “The LORD appeared to Abraham,” in the singular; but three men show up.  When Abraham greets the men in Hebrew, he begins by addressing them in the second person singular (“you”) and then switches to second person plural (“y’all”).  So are they one or three?  Yes!
The context of this meal is important.  In the immediately preceding textual unit (Genesis 17) God had re-made his covenant with Abraham (first made in Genesis 15), introducing some revised terms, such as circumcision as the mark of the covenant.  God also incorporates the promise of kingship as a term of the covenant, and specifies that the son of Sarah—Abraham’s first-and-should-have-been-only wife—will be the heir of the covenant.  Now, in our present chapter, the LORD shows up to have a meal with Abraham.
Meals are important covenant rituals.  Covenants form unrelated persons into family members.  Families eat together.  It is a sign of communion and relationship.  Having formed a covenant with Abraham, the LORD now appears to share a family meal with him.  In this meal, Abraham is eager to serve the LORD and feed “them” well.  He wants to be a good host.  But this meal is not about what Abraham can do for the LORD.  Do we really think these three angelic visitors needed material food?  Instead, this meal is about what the LORD can do for Abraham: provide him a son and heir, in fulfillment of his covenant promises.
2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 5:
R. (1a) He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
One who walks blamelessly and does justice;
who thinks the truth in his heart
and slanders not with his tongue.
R. He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who harms not his fellow man,
nor takes up a reproach against his neighbor;
by whom the reprobate is despised,
while he honors those who fear the LORD.
R. He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
One who does these things
shall never be disturbed.
R. He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.
Since the First Reading and Gospel are both about sharing intimate communion with God (in fact, sharing a meal with God), the Psalm reminds us of what sort of persons we need to be to have this privilege of “living in the presence of the LORD.”  To live in the presence of the LORD requires that we do justice, think the truth, refrain from slander, from harm, and criticism of others, from usury and bribes.  It requires that we encourage those who honor the LORD and refrain from honoring atheists and those who mock faith in God (“the reprobate”).
These “rules” are not meant as a restraint on our lifestyle, but as a path to happiness.  Can the man truly be happy who commits injustice to others; believes in falsehoods; slanders, harms, and criticizes those around him; charges unfair interest and takes bribes; who mocks and humiliates those who worship God, and encourages blasphemers and atheists?  Can that person be joyful and content?  Even if he is successful for a while in avoiding retaliation from all those he has harmed, I submit that man cannot be happy because he cannot have interior peace.  The practice of evil is its own punishment.
3.  The Second Reading is Col 1:24-28:
Brothers and sisters:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,
and in my flesh I am filling up
what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ
on behalf of his body, which is the church,
of which I am a minister
in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me
to bring to completion for you the word of God,
the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.
But now it has been manifested to his holy ones,
to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory
of this mystery among the Gentiles;
it is Christ in you, the hope for glory.
It is he whom we proclaim,
admonishing everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom,
that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.
At this time in the Lectionary cycle, we are reading semi-continuously through the Epistle to the Colossians.  Today’s reading is profound, but we will focus on just one striking statement by St. Paul: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,
and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” 
My good friend and founder of this blog, Michael Barber, has just published a brilliant treatment of the role of faith and works in salvation in the New Testament. [See here]. In his main essay on the topic, Dr. Barber quotes St. Thomas Aquinas on this passage of Colossians:
[This could be misinterpreted as teaching] that the passion of Christ was not sufficient for our redemption, and that the sufferings of the saints were added to complete it …. But this is heretical, because the blood of Christ is sufficient to redeem many worlds….  Rather, we should understand that Christ and the Church are one mystical person, whose head is Christ, and show body is all the just, for every just person is a member of this head: “individually members” (1 Cor. 12:27)….  We could say that Paul was completing the sufferings that were lacking in his own flesh.  For what was lacking was that, just as Christ had suffered in his own body, so he should also suffer in Paul, his member, and in similar ways in others. [Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Colossians (trans. F. R. Larcher; Naples: Sapientia, 2006)].
This is one of the places in Scripture that teach us the doctrine of redemptive suffering, that as Christians we will and indeed must suffer in this life, but our sufferings are participations in the suffering of Jesus, and as such have value in God’s eyes and advance the salvation of the whole world.
The truth of redemptive suffering is lost in Christian groups that teach “salvation by faith alone” understood as a path to heaven that involves believing, but not necessarily a transformation of one’s thought and behavior, much less the endurance of suffering for Christ’s sake.
4.  The Gospel is Lk 10:38-42:
Jesus entered a village
where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.
She had a sister named Mary
who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
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.”
The Lord said to her in reply,
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her.”
In this part of Luke, Jesus has begun his “death march” to Jerusalem, where he will celebrate the great familial meal par excellence that will form the New Covenant.  On his way, he stops in the home of Mary and Martha to share a meal with them.
Like Abraham, Martha and Mary have the opportunity to host God at a meal in their home.
Martha and Mary have different attitudes toward Jesus in their home.  Mary is concerned about what Jesus can give to her, and sits soaking up his teaching.  Martha is concerned with what she can do for Jesus, and is busy about serving the food.
But does a man who can multiply loaves to feed 5,000 really need someone to bring him food?
Martha is not ill-intentioned, and Jesus treats her gently.  “Martha, Martha …”—the repetition of her name is a sign of affection and love.  He understands her mindset and knows that her desire to serve is ultimately also an expression of love for him, even if misguided.
“You are worried about many things, but there is need of only one thing.”
What is the “one thing”?  Some suggest Martha was serving an elaborate meal and Jesus is suggesting a single dish would have sufficed.  Perhaps that is true.  But Scripture has layers of meaning.  On a deeper level, the “one thing” that is necessary is communion with God.  Finally, this is the only thing that matters, and it is all we will do and enjoy in eternity.
Martha’s great business causes her to lose communion with Jesus.  So busy serving, she is not spending any time with him.
There is a pleasing illustration of Martha’s attitude in an excellent German film marketed in the US under the title “Mostly Martha.”  The lead character—not accidentally named Martha—is a German cook obsessed with perfection, who has forgotten that food and eating are ultimately forms of communion with other persons, an expression of love and fellowship.  In the course of the film—and through much pain—she learns to open herself to a communion of love with her young niece and an Italian chef who becomes her husband.
But back to the Gospel reading: Martha’s problem is that she is too concerned about what she can do for Jesus, when it is really about what Jesus can do for her.
This Sunday, we hear these words proclaimed at the Mass, our own covenant meal with God present.  Yet we need to remember, the Mass is not something we do for God, nor is it a meal we host for God.  The Mass is something God does for us; He is the host of the meal.
We don’t do God a favor by showing up for Church on Sunday and throwing something into the plate.  This does nothing for God.  It does not enhance his dignity or add anything to his power or glory.
God does us a favor by hosting a meal for us every Sunday in which he offers Himself to us as food, in the most intimate act of communion with Himself imaginable.
Mass is not about what we do for God, but about what God does for us.  At this Sunday’s Mass, let’s pray more intensely for God to work in our hearts, to forgive our sin and transform the way we think and act, that we can become like the man of Psalm 15 who is suitable to dwell in God’s presence; or like Mary, who understood the “one thing” necessary and was willing to say “No” to distractions and demands in order to soak in the presence and teaching of Jesus.
Originally Posted: The Sacred Page.