GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Martha comes to Jesus and says “Lord, don’t you care that my sister isn’t helping me, that she’s left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!” Jesus responds by saying “Martha, you’re anxious about many things and there’s only thing necessary, and that Mary has chosen the better portion, or the good portion, and it’s not going to be taken from her.”
Now what is going on exactly in this story? Most people, I think, and most homilies I’ve heard on this, will focus on Martha and Mary as kind of symbols for two aspects of the spiritual life. Activity, who would be represented by Martha, who’s serving, who’s doing something; and then contemplation, which is symbolized by Mary, who’s simply sitting and receiving and listening to the Lord. And as we will see in a minute when we get to the living tradition, that’s a very, very ancient interpretation. It goes all the way back to the 3rd
Century A.D. with the writings of Origen of Alexandria, who is the most prolific Bible commentator among the early Church Fathers in the 3rd
Century A.D., before the time of Saint Jerome. So it’s a very ancient interpretation and I don’t want to deny that interpretation. However, it’s important that we be precise here about exactly what’s going on because sometimes people will say, “Well Jesus rebukes Martha for being too active and he approves Mary for being contemplative”, but there’s a little bit more going on there if you look exactly what he says here.
So notice, if you read the verse carefully here, it says “Martha was distracted with much serving” and when he responds to Martha’s demand that he get Mary to help her, notice what Jesus says: “You are anxious and troubled about many things.” So if you look at the text carefully, you’ll notice that both Luke’s description and Jesus’ response actually put the emphasis not just on Martha’s serving, but on the fact that she’s distracted by her serving. So if you look at the Greek word there, Luke says she was “distracted by much service.” The Greek word is perispaō,
it literally means “pulled away”. So if you’ve ever been distracted you know what that does. Maybe you have an iPhone, or you’ve seen a young person on the phone and you say “they’re being distracted”, why? Well because they are in a particular situation but the phone is pulling them away from the present and distracting them with something else. That’s actually what the Greek word perispaō
something is pulling you away from something else, it’s distracting you. So twice Mary is described as being distracted and the second word that the text emphasizes is that she is “anxious.” Jesus says, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things.” The Greek word there, merimnaō,
is from the word “to remember”, so she has a lot on her mind. So she’s distracted, and she’s anxious, or worried, or fretful about many different things. But Jesus says to her, “There’s only one thing that’s actually necessary or one thing that’s needed, and Mary has chosen it”. So whenever you look at this terminology here, it should actually call to mind Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the gospel when he tells Martha not to be anxious. He uses the same word that occurs in Luke 12:22 when he says to the disciples:
And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on.
Then he goes again to give his famous examples of “consider the lilies of the field, they don’t toil or spin but they’re clothed more gloriously than Solomon”, or “consider the birds of the air, they don’t work but your father feeds them”. So he’s saying don’t be anxious and don’t be of an anxious mind, but seek first the kingdom of Heaven. That’s from Luke 12:22-31.
So the focus of Jesus’ response to Martha’s demand that Mary help her is actually to correct her for two things: First, she’s distracted with her service. It’s not just that she’s serving, it’s that the service is pulling her away from something else. And second, that she’s anxious about earthly things, like preparing a meal for Jesus. So in this case here, it’s the service that Martha’s providing that is leading her to two problems: namely to be distracted and to be worried or to be anxious, and that’s what Jesus (so-to-speak) rebukes her for.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
This passage has puzzled so many people because it appears to suggest at first glance that there's something deficient or something lacking in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. In fact, it doesn't just suggest it. It says it. So Paul says in verse 24:
I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body
Now, some people are really troubled by that because if you think about it, Paul has just finished saying in Colossians 1, that all the fullness of the Godhead or divinity dwells in Christ bodily. And he's going to repeat that point in Colossians 2:9. So he's just finished saying Christ is fully divine and he's going to say it again. And so people will wonder, well, how can he say if Christ is God that there's anything lacking in his afflictions or in his sufferings or the cross, that the cross is somehow missing something in it, right? You may have sometimes heard, or you may have heard before the idea that even a single drop of the blood of Christ would be sufficient to atone for all the sins of the world, because a single drop of the blood of Christ was a drop of the blood of the Godman, of someone who's not only fully man, but also fully God. And if, as St Peter and scriptures say, love covers a multitude of sins, then the divine love, the infinite love of God made flesh covers an infinite multitude of sins. In other words, there's no way that objectively in itself there could be anything deficient or lacking in the power or the efficacy of the crucifixion of Christ.
After all, Paul has just said, just a couple of verses earlier in verse 20, that through Christ God “reconcile[d] to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” So the blood of the cross has the power to reconcile the whole cosmos to God. So how can Paul then turn around and say that anything's lacking in the cross? Well, the answer, and this is really crucial, is the difference between the objective reality of the cross and our subjective participation in the cross. So on the one hand, speaking objectively, there is nothing lacking in the afflictions of Christ on the cross, precisely because of all the reasons I just mentioned. He's fully God. He's fully man. And it's through the blood of his cross that all things are reconciled to God. So nothing objectively lacking, but Paul's not talking about the cross objectively here.
Paul's talking about his own personal subjective participation in the sufferings that Christ endured on the cross. And in that sense, there is one thing lacking in the cross. Namely, my participation in the cross, my doing what Jesus said to his disciples in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: “Take up your cross and follow me." Okay. That's really what Paul's talking about here. And if you want to see that clearly just look at the context. Is Paul talking about Calvary here or is he talking about the mystery of the Church? It's the latter. Listen to what he says.
Now I rejoice in [what?] my
So there's your first clue. He's speaking about his subjective personal sufferings, the sufferings of Paul.
I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake
There's the mystery of the Church.
and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body
That is what?
of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,
the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery
Which is what?
Christ in you
Okay. So pause there for a second. What is Paul talking about? Paul is not saying that there's anything deficient in the sufferings of Christ on Calvary on Good Friday. What he is saying is that Christ never intended for the redemptive suffering that he inaugurated on Good Friday on Calvary to cease entirely. Instead, Christ intended for the afflictions that he experienced and endured on Calvary on Good Friday—and this is the mystery—to continue in his mystical body that is the church on earth.
And if that seems mysterious, you're right. That's why Paul calls it a mystērion
. This mystery has been hidden for ages and generations, but it's now manifest to the saints. Who are the saints? Remember, when Paul talks about the saints, he doesn't mean it in the same way we do. When we talk about the saints as Roman Catholics in the 21st century, or as any Catholic, Eastern Catholic, even Orthodox, whatever Christian denomination you might belong to, when we talk about the saints, we tend to refer to the saints in heaven, the holy ones who are already in glory, who have the beatific vision. When Paul talks about the hagiois
, the holy ones, he primarily means it to refer to the saints on earth. He means it to refer to the baptized, to those who have been made holy through baptism and are now part of the mystical body of Christ.
So what Paul's saying to them here is that the mystery of christian suffering, and that is a mystery, is that whenever a christian suffers, whenever somebody like Paul suffers, he's not suffering in vain, and he is not suffering in isolation. He or she is actually suffering in union with Christ crucified. He or she, when a Christian suffers, is actually filling up subjectively what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church. Because although the personal body of the risen Jesus is in glory and is no longer suffering. He bears the wounds, but he's not still suffering and dying. He's risen and he's ascended into heaven and he's seated at the right hand of the Father in the glory of the kingdom. But the ecclesial body of Christ, the mystical body of Christ, which is the church on earth, that body is still suffering.
That body is still living out the Paschal mystery of his suffering, his death, and his resurrection from the death. And so what Paul's trying to explain to the Colossians is why he's in prison. One of the imprisoned epistles. How can Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, who's chosen by Christ to be an apostle to the Gentiles, how can he be stuck in a prison? How can he be stuck in a prison cell, perhaps awaiting execution? I mean, aren't you chosen by Christ? Isn't Christ the Lord and ruler of all? Hasn't he been raised from the dead? Hasn't he ascended into heaven? How do you explain this?
And Paul said, "It's simple. I fill up in my body what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his church. I'm suffering in union with Christ for the salvation of the world." It's not just Paul's evangelization that is redemptive and efficacious and saving the world. It's also Paul's participation in the crucifixion of Jesus through his own sufferings, through being in prison, through being stoned to death, even though he didn't die. He got up and kept preaching, but he was stoned. He was beaten. He was persecuted. He was imprisoned. Those sufferings, those afflictions are part of the mystery of Christ united to his bride on earth, the church. The church on earth, the Church Militant it's frequently called, could also be called the church suffering because she's suffering on earth.
So that's the basic point. And I can't help but emphasize here that this is an aspect of Paul that we tend to forget about. It's very popular to think of Paul as Paul, the apostle. Paul, the evangelist who brings the good news to the nations. We can also think of Paul, the teacher. Or Paul, the theologian who writes these complex theological epistles that are full of Christology and eschatology and soteriology and all these theological truths. And those are true, but Paul wasn't just an apostle. He wasn't just a theologian. He was also a mystic. This is Paul, the mystic.
Years ago when I was a doctoral student, one of the most powerful books on Paul that I ever read, even though I don't agree with a lot that's in it was a book by Albert Schweitzer. He was a Lutheran theologian and a genius. He wrote a book called The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle
. And that book really transformed the way I read Paul, because it helped me realize that Paul wasn't just a theologian.
Paul was a man of prayer and Paul was a mystic. He saw his whole life, his mission, his personal sufferings through the lens, the mystical lens of his union with Christ, through the lens of the mystery of Christ living out his passion in the Church. Paul saw his whole life in terms of the mystery of union with Christ, as he says:
To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this [mystērion
What is the mystērion?
The mystērion is
Christ in you.
In other words, Jesus doesn't just die on Calvary to atone for human sin. He does that. Christ dies on Calvary so that he can have union with his Church, so that he can be united to the bride. So that he can be united with you, and not just united with you, but actually dwell in you invisibly, but really and truly. And if you have any doubts that he's dwelling in you, all you have to ask is, am I suffering? Because if you're a baptized Christian and you're suffering, that's actually a sign not that you've been abandoned by Christ, according to Paul, but that you're actually united to him. And you're filling up the mystery of the cross in your own life. That's a very powerful point. Paul, the mystic, the mysticism of Paul the apostle. Nowhere do you see that more clearly I would argue then in Colossians 1, the reading for today on the sufferings of Christ and how Paul participates in those sufferings. For full access subscribe here >