Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Active-contemplative lives

"Christ in the House of Mary and Martha" Vincenzo Campi (ca 1550)
“Christ in the House of Mary and Martha” Vincenzo Campi (ca 1550)

Central idea: Christ wants to dwell in us to transform us into perfect images of himself. Doctrine: Active vs. contemplative lives. Practical application: Living active-contemplative lives.

To view Lectionary 108, click here.

Central idea: Christ wants to dwell in us to transform us into perfect images of himself.

Reading 1 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.”

  • In the ancient Middle East, hospitality to strangers was a very important virtue. It remains a vital human and Christian virtue.
  • Here we see Abraham’s ready service to three travelers. Even though he is a wealthy man, with many cattle and servants, Abraham makes himself their servant, sees to their comfort and rest, has the best foods prepared for them, and then waits on them himself.
    • Abraham is a model of hospitality to strangers (CCC 2241).
  • The three travelers are angels in human form. One of them announces he will bring about what Abraham and Sarah want more than anything, a son who will fulfill God’s promises to them.
  • When the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2), he was referring to this episode.
  • Christian readers have seen this event as an early revelation of the Blessed Trinity. Three “men” appeared to Abraham but the sacred writer of Genesis says it was “the LORD.”

Responsorial Psalm Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 5

R. 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.

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.

Who lends not his money at usury
and accepts no bribe against the innocent.
One who does these things
shall never be disturbed.

  • Psalm 15 expresses very simply the qualities of the just man, the one who gives others what he owes them.
  • We need to be reminded what justice is, and when we are, we immediately see how good it is.
  • This is a very good psalm to turn over slowly in our minds in contemplation. If we are a Mary to this psalm, it will help us be a Martha to our neighbor.
  • The LORD will reward this kind of man by being close to him. In the New Covenant, the closeness is perfected in Christ dwelling in us.

Reading 2 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.

  • Christ gives the members of his Church the privilege of united their own suffering to the sufferings he endured to redeem us. This gives our afflictions a whole new meaning. They are redemptive. This is why St. Paul rejoices in them. (CCC 618, 1508)
    • Josemaria Escriva wrote, “The great Christian revolution has been to convert pain into fruitful suffering and to turn a bad thing into something good. We have deprived the devil of this weapon; and with it we conquer eternity” (Furrow 887).
  • Paul’s vocation as an apostle was to bring Christ to the Gentiles. His mission was not merely to bring Christ to them as good news but to bring Christ to actually live in them, transforming them to perfect them.

Alleluia Cf. Lk 8:15

Blessed are they who have kept the word with a generous heart
and bring a harvest through perseverance.

  • To “have kept” means to have persevered, according to the years given us.
  • The “word” to be kept is the Gospel: to have loved God and neighbor according to the model of Christ.
  • A “generous heart” is one that has given and given and given, that is, has had perseverance. 
  • The harvest is the goodness they have cultivated within themselves and around them.

Gospel 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.”

  • Our Lord was ever the master teacher, not merely the teacher of a universal doctrine about salvation, but also the teacher of individual souls who needed formation. One way he taught persons about what they needed was by responding to them with something completely unexpected but which they really needed to hear. Those messages also benefit us 2000 years later.
  • When Jesus entered Bethany, Martha stepped forward and welcomed him, not only into the village but also into her home. Martha was a good hostess, preparing a meal for the Lord and his disciples. She obviously wanted things to go well, which was why she felt burdened with worry. Maybe there was some ego involved, too. She wanted Our Lord to think well of her.
  • Mary was not helping Martha. Instead, she sat at Christ’s feet, listening to him.
  • Martha welcomed Our Lord with words and hospitality. Mary, it seems, welcomed Christ by listening to him.
  • Perhaps Martha had tried to get Mary’s attention to get up and help. Perhaps Mary had deliberately ignored Martha. Maybe there was some laziness in Mary’s attitude. We can certainly project our own experiences with siblings here.
  • But our Lord had come to their home less to eat than to teach, while Martha was more focusing on providing the food and Mary more on learning. That’s why Mary had chosen the better part, and Our Lord was not going to take that away from her.

Doctrine: Active vs. contemplative lives

  • Throughout much of Catholic history, the story of Martha and Mary has been important for understanding the relationship between contemplation and activity. When Thomas Aquinas examines these kinds of lives he uses Martha and Mary as examples (ST II,II, q. 182).
  • The active life we know well. It is working, making things, doing things, improving things, fixing things, learning things. It is having children, taking care of a home, raising animals and growing food. It is being busy with many things, like Martha. Most people for most of history have lived active lives by necessity.
  • The contemplative life is the life of the mind. It is thinking about the meaning of things. It is the life of learning. It is the life of prayer. It is sitting at the feet of Truth and listening, like Mary. Jesus Christ spent whole nights in prayer and took his disciples away to a deserted place so they could pray. From the beginning of Church history, men and women left “civilization” and went into the desert or any deserted place to live as hermits or monks. Many still do today.

Practical Application: Living active-contemplative lives

  • We lay Catholics are called to be contemplatives in the middle of the world.
  • We live in the world as laypersons and are involved in all ordinary activities, just like everyone else.
  • At the same time, God is calling us to be united to him, to be transformed by him, to bring all our concerns to him, to carry on a conversation with him. (CCC 2709-2719)
    • We do this contemplation both all the time and at specific times devoted to God, such as at set times of prayer and at Holy Mass.
    • An active-contemplative life integrates work and prayer.
  • We can be as busy as Martha—indeed, it is unbecoming of a child of God to be lazy—but as serene as Mary, because we are with someone at all times, Our Lord.
  • In reality, we are busy or active at all times we are not asleep, whether we are just using our minds while studying, thinking about a problem, or praying, or whether we are mainly using our bodies, while doing manual labor, playing sports, or exercising.
  • If we use every moment well, with one eye on God, we are integrating activity and contemplation in our lives.
  • Sitting at the entrance of his tent, Abraham was engaged in contemplation, in thought, but when he saw the three travelers he sprang into action to serve them (CCC 2571).
  • We cannot do justice so as to dwell in the presence of the Lord without reflecting on how well our choices agree with God’s law.
  • When you unite the difficulties of your life to the Cross, you are achieving full integration of activity with contemplation. What is more active than suffering? And what is more contemplative than reflecting on it in the presence of God?
  • The essence of St. Paul’s mission, as he saw it, was to foster Christ living in those to whom he brought the message. Christ was to transform them to perfect them. The more Christ is alive in us, the more we have integrated action and contemplation.
  • In a sense, we should be like Mary when we are working and like Martha when we are praying, but without the anxiety.

Written as an aid for homilists and a resource for the faithful, this doctrinal homily outline (1) provides insights into the Lectionary readings, (2) explicates a doctrine of Catholic Faith or morals from them, and (3) shows specific ways lay persons can live these truths. (To read more about this approach, click here.)

This outline is written to be in accord with the Homiletic Directory issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (2014). (To read an excellent summary of the Homiletic Directory, click here.)

The Homiletic Directory offers the following Catechism points and themes for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • CCC 2571: Abraham’s hospitality
  • CCC 2241: welcome the stranger
  • CCC 2709-2719: contemplation
  • CCC 618, 1508: sharing in Christ’s sufferings for his Body
  • CCC 568, 772: “the hope of glory” in the Church and in her sacraments






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