16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)
This Sunday’s readings touch on a variety of topics. The first reading from Genesis tells of Abraham offering hospitality to angels. The gospel speaks of Christ staying in the home of Mary and Martha. And St. Paul talks in the second reading about “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” What is the one thing that unites these seemingly unconnected passages?
Hospitality has always been mentioned since the beginning as an important virtue for Christians. The New Testament specifically instructs us to practice hospitality as a way of loving others (Rom 12:13, 1 Pt 4:9) . It is enshrined as a founding principle of monastic life in the Rule of St. Benedict. Written in 516 AD, it states, “Let all guests who happen to come be received as Christ.” Our present Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions hospitality specifically as part of living the Gospel (see CCC 1971).
But as we see in this Sunday’s first reading (Gen 18:1-10), God’s faithful people have practiced hospitality from the beginning. Abraham welcomes three strangers into his home (not knowing they are angels), and offers them refreshment and rest. In return he is blessed by God with the birth of a son, Isaac, who would become the father of Jacob and an ancestor of Jesus.
Scripture says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). Hospitality can be as simple as offering a passer-by a smile and pleasant greeting, or as extensive as the example from last Sunday’s gospel of the Good Samaritan who provided care for a man beaten and left for dead. Jesus tells us, “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).
The Better Part
If hospitality is so important, we might expect Jesus to praise Martha in this Sunday’s gospel reading (Lk 10:38-42). But that’s not what we see happen.
Jesus is staying with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus (whom he would later raise from the dead). Martha is described as being “burdened with much serving” while Mary “sat beside the Lord at his feet, listening to him speak.”
Martha is tending to all the necessary things involved in offering hospitality to a guest. We can go back and look at what Abraham and Sarah did to welcome their heavenly visitors. Genesis describes them kneading flour to make bread and slaughtering and butchering a whole steer for meat — not exactly light housework!
The gospel doesn’t say Martha was slaughtering a steer, but she was no doubt working hard. But when she complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” he doesn’t praise her for her hospitality. Instead, Jesus says, “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” (Lk 10:44-42).
By praising Mary for choosing “the better part,” Jesus is not scolding Martha for being hospitable. Something can be called better than something else without implying the something else is bad. In fact, it doesn’t say much about the goodness of a thing when it is only called “better” in comparison to what is bad. But if it is called “better” in comparison to something good, then it must be very good indeed.
We know that hospitality is a virtue. So the “better part” chosen by Mary must be extremely good. What is it that Mary has chosen? It is what Jesus speaks of when he says, “There is need of only one thing.”
The “better part” chosen by Mary is Jesus. The Son of God entered into her home as a guest, and she sat by his feet and listened to him talk. In that moment, she had need of nothing else. Martha offers Jesus food and drink. Mary offers him her devotion and attention, and this is the better part. Mary offers a higher form of hospitality because she offers herself.
The one thing we all need above anything else — the one thing that can sustain us through this life and beyond into life everlasting — is Jesus. And the one thing he wants from us is our gift of self back to him, in love.
What is lacking in Christ
So what, then, is St. Paul talking about in our second reading (Col 1:24-28), when he says he is “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ?” What could possibly be lacking in the perfect eternal sacrifice of the Son of God? Just one thing: our participation in it.
Christ’s suffering for us means nothing if we do not accept it as our own. This is why Jesus says that we all have to take up our cross and follow him (Lk 9:23). So let’s look at what St. Paul says with this understanding.
He begins by saying, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” Whoa! Think about that for a moment. St. Paul is being persecuted and punished, and yet he knows joy. This is possible because he has the One Thing. He has Jesus. Or more accurately, Jesus has him.
Paul belongs to Christ which means Paul’s suffering is not Paul’s alone, but part of the suffering of Christ. This makes it redemptive, not just for Paul, but for others, because Christ’s suffering was for the sake of all the Church. This is why Paul can say, “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Col 1:24).
The suffering Paul endures for Christ becomes an offering of hospitality to the entire Church.
The Ultimate Hospitality: No Greater Love
What is hospitality but giving of yourself for the good of someone else? Whether it is the Good Samaritan who gives two silver coins for the care of the injured man, Abraham slaughtering the steer to feed the angels, or you and I taking the time to offer a smile and warm greeting to a stranger, these are all ways of giving of ourselves for the good of others.
There is no greater example of this than Christ’s gift to us on the cross. If we follow his example of love, we will be moved to show hospitality to our neighbor. And conversely, offering hospitality to others helps us draw closer to Christ. It is important that we not miss this connection.
Hospitality is a good and necessary way to show love to our neighbors. But love for our neighbor is itself a sign of the greatest good, which is the love of God. It is possible for us to make a false idol even of good things like hospitality and service, if we become so engrossed in them that we loose sight of what they point toward.
Christians value hospitality because we know that loving service to others is a sign pointing us to the “better part” — the One Necessary Thing — the love of Jesus Christ himself.