Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Genesis 18:1-10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 15:2-5
Second Reading: St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 1:24-28
Gospel: According to St. Luke 10:38-42
The distinction between Martha and Mary in this week’s Gospel is one with which we can readily identify. Hard working Martha is unnerved that her sister Mary is lounging about instead of helping to serve Jesus, their honored guest. We can sympathize with Martha, especially when Jesus admonishes her for her criticism of Mary. Who hasn’t looked at family members, neighbors, or coworkers and thought that they need to work a little harder to hold up their end of things? Who wouldn’t feel a bit put out when someone actually complements the ‘lazy’ one and berates the hard worker?
This reading brings up the great distinction between do-ing and be-ing, and forces us to look at how we approach our lives as followers of Jesus. A philosophical context for the story can be helpful and a focus on what is called virtue ethics can be the key to unlock the ultimate meaning of this story.
Virtue ethics is as old as philosophy itself. Aristotle and then Aquinas focused on the importance of practicing the virtues – things like courage, modesty, temperance, honesty – as a means of being an ethical person. In the modern context people like the British Catholic philosophers Elizabeth Anscombe, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor have carried the banner of virtue ethics and have written extensively on the topic.
In my Christian Manhood class we study a fantastic little book by German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper entitled The Christian Idea of Man, which discusses the four cardinal and three theological virtues in light of the writings of Aquinas and those who followed in his footsteps.
The solid rock upon which virtue ethics is built is the belief that it is more important to be a certain type of person than it is perform certain types of actions. At first glance this seems to go against the grain of what we have been taught: follow the Commandments and everything will work out. The problem with the traditional approach is that we can certainly follow the Commandments but have absolutely no personal connection with what we are doing, and Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees bears this out.
Virtuous people certainly do the right things, but the source of their actions isn’t any law that they are afraid of transgressing. Instead, their motivation is love of Christ lived out in the Gospel. Thus, Aquinas and the whole virtue ethics tradition focuses on the necessity of putting love of God before all else. We are to be courageous, modest, temperate, honest, and the rest not because they serve some practical purpose like making us look good or getting us into Heaven. We are called to be virtuous because we love God and know that virtue is our true calling.
To act in line with the Gospel cannot be achieved without first hearing it and making it our own. Mary chose the better part not because it enabled her to avoid the work with which Martha was so concerned. Mary chose the better part because sitting at the feet of our Lord is the necessary first step to serving Him properly.