Forgive Us Our Sins

17th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Are you having a hard time? Me too. I’m a prayerful person, a faith-filled person. But the world feels heavy; bleak is too flowery a word to describe it. Frankly, what I’ve witnessed in the past twelve months has nearly stunned me into silence. And when there are no words I know it is time for me to enter into a period of even deeper prayer and reflection.

The concise version of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s gospel—just 38 words in my translation—provides a much needed anchor. That economy of words does not equate simplicity however, particularly as regards the reciprocal nature of forgiveness.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God will forgive us in the same manner that we forgive one another [Luke 11:4]. Considering our track record I think we need to attend more closely to our end of that bargain. Shall we?

I’m also struck by the last verse of today’s gospel in which Jesus reveals that the answer to our prayers comes in the form of the Holy Spirit [Luke 11:13].

How often have we complained that our prayers go unanswered, and how close are some of us to giving up on prayer altogether (a.k.a. Is God deaf to our cries?) when perhaps it is we who aren’t listening. Maybe we ignore the stirrings of the Spirit, especially when the alternative means we are the ones who must change our ways.

All that ignoring has somehow brought us to this place.

The response to fear which is playing out in social, economic, political, and religious arenas here in the United States and all around the world is to seal ourselves off from having to deal with one another, but in doing so, we are in danger of suffocating in the stench of our own waste.

Come on. Please forgive my ineloquence, but we have to do better than this.

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(I’ll be taking the next few weeks off from posting on The Good Disciple to air out my house.)

What is Your Better Part?

16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

This weekend Christians around the world will hear the story of two sisters—followers of Jesus— who welcomed Jesus into their home. In this story, the behavior of one sister, Martha who was “burdened with much serving” [10:40] is contrasted with the behavior of the other sister, Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet “listening to him speak.”[10:39]

Here’s the translation from the New American Bible (Revised Edition). And here’s how some contemporary readers might hear it:

Jesus was welcomed into the home of a woman named Martha. Her sister Mary sat next Jesus so she could listen to his words. Meanwhile, Martha went into the kitchen to put the final touches on the feast she prepared. Soon, overwhelmed with mixing drinks, serving appetizers, setting a perfect table and making sure everyone was comfortable—all with no help from her sister—Martha went to Jesus and asked him to tell Mary to help her. But instead of the response she expected from Jesus, he reprimanded Martha by saying she was focused on all the wrong things, and that Mary had chosen the better part.

Hmmmph. I can’t like that[1].

In the first place, why is it that when we envision this story unfolding we automatically put Martha in the kitchen? Nowhere in the text is food or drink or any of the other acts of domestic hospitality mentioned. Luke was a clever writer; if food was part of the story, he would have included it.

Second, how is the exaggerated competition between Martha and Mary helpful, knowing that among the Christian faithful there have always been those whose service leans more heavily towards ministerial service, and others more towards prayer and spirituality? Furthermore, wouldn’t we agree that a life well lived involves a delicate balance of both? Is Luke suggesting Jesus thinks one is better than the other?

Are we to infer from Jesus’ words that Mary’s example is superior to Martha’s?

Here’s what Jesus actually says to her: “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.” [Luke 10:41-42]

The pastoral interpretation, of course, is that Mary represents contemplation and Martha represents action, and that “one who serves actively can only do so after having listened to the word at the feet of Jesus.”[2]  Obviously that is true. There’s nothing wrong with this explanation, plus, it takes some of the sting out of Jesus’ words to Martha. But this understanding is too simple, too literal, and it sidesteps the elephant in the room.

Was Jesus singling out Mary’s “better part” at the expense of Martha’s service?

As a woman in ministry, this question makes me uneasy. Two millennia after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, women of faith continue to struggle to participate in the life of the church beyond Mary’s “better part.” Even while there have been advances in women’s involvement, and Pope Francis continues to call for greater roles for women in the church and he has agreed to create a commission to study the role of the female deaconate in the early church, the partial interpretation of Jesus’ words to Martha for contemporary men and women is concerning.

Of the various methods and approaches to biblical interpretation recommended by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the Historical-Critical method is deemed indispensable. “Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the “word of God in human language,” has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them.” [3]

Each of the books of the New Testament was written with the purpose of presenting the story of Jesus to a specific community during a particular time in world history, in response to their circumstances. Therefore, as part of our interpretive method, it is vital that we attempt to understand the focus and intended message of every author.

Barbara Reid, O.P., esteemed Professor of New Testament Studies, Vice President and Academic Dean of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and author of numerous acclaimed titles[4] and articles on Luke-Acts, and Paul, offers compelling scholarly evidence in her book, “Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke,” that the common interpretation of the Martha and Mary story may not be what Luke intended.

Reid notes that in the original Greek, Luke uses both the noun diakonia, and the verb diakonein in verse 40. Both words “in the Christian communities of Luke’s day, designated a wider variety of ministries.”[5] In our translation, found in the NABRE[6], verse 40 reads “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.” [Luke 10:40; emphasis mine]

St. Luke was a brilliant writer who artfully connected the experience of the early Christian Church, his community, to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Due to his frequent depictions of women interacting with Jesus—far more than any of the other gospel writers—Luke is frequently portrayed as a friend to women, but this theory has been questioned. Stories like Martha and Mary provide valuable insight into feminine presence in the early Christian mission, but are we to infer that by their inclusion Luke’s community supported their involvement in ministerial service?

Since the word diakonia was used throughout the New Testament to mean ministerial service there is no reason to believe that Luke intended it to mean anything else. In other words, Martha was overwhelmed with the amount of ministerial service that needed to be done, and she took it upon herself to do more than she could, perhaps like many of us do today.

So why then does Jesus praise Mary’s part when she is seated silently at his feet? Is Jesus saying that Martha should stop ministerial service? Is Jesus saying that Martha should sit down and be quiet?

Other New Testament texts[7] make it known that divisions over women’s ministerial service (diakonia) were on the rise, therefore the presence of women in the gospels did not necessarily indicate acceptance of their ministerial participation. As Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “The interpretation of what Luke says on any subject must take into account where in his story he says it.”[8]

For example, is it possible that Luke’s intention in positioning the story of Jesus, Martha and Mary after the empowering stories of the mission of the seventy two disciples, the affirmation of the privileges of discipleship, and the story of the Good Samaritan may have been a subtle way to curb women’s participation in ministerial service (diakonia)? It seems possible that this could be what Luke intended.

Still, when I read and reread and then read Jesus’ words again, I don’t hear them supporting Luke’s intention, if we are to believe it was to diminish Martha’s service.

“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.” [Luke 10:41-42]

Jesus is not suggesting to Martha that she should throw in the towel, sit down and be quiet. If this was the case, what could possibly be life-giving about Jesus words?

What Jesus said was an affirmation of Mary’s part, not a negative judgement against Martha’s. Mary had chosen “the better part” and it would not be taken from her. What Mary was doing was “the better part” for her.

That means there were other “parts,” one of which Martha was involved in (diakonia). Martha’s fault, which Jesus pointed out, was that she was “anxious and worried many things” when there was “need of only one thing.”

Barbara Reid asks her readers to consider, “What would it mean for our day to “choose the better part?” Would it be different for each person and each community and each age? If this last question is answered affirmatively, then we might begin to act out of a vision that allows for the rich diversity of gifts in the community to be used in service without regard to gender distinctions. Both men and women called to contemplative listening and women and men called to all forms of ministry would together hear Jesus’ approval of their having “chosen the better part.”[9]

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[1] “I can’t like that,” the frequent, now classic, words of protest spoken by my eldest daughter as a child.

[2] Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part: Women in the Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1996. 144.

[3] “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993 (as published in Origins, January 6, 1994) http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_Interp-FullText.htm#Sec4

[4] Barbara E. Reid, O.P. is the author of Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year B (Liturgical Press, 2011; Year C, 2012, Year A, 2013), Taking Up the Cross: New Testament Interpretations Through Latina and Feminist Eyes (Fortress Press, 2007; Spanish translation: Reconsiderar la Cruz, Editorial Verbo Divino, 2009), The Gospel According to Matthew. New Collegeville Bible Commentary Series (Liturgical Press, 2005), Parables for Preachers (3 volumes; Liturgical Press, 1999, 2000, 2001; Spanish translation: Las Parábolas: Predicándolas y Viviéndolas (Ciclo A, B, 2008, 2009), Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke (Liturgical Press, 1996), A Retreat With St. Luke (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000), and many journal articles.  Forthcoming is Wisdom’s Feast: An Introduction to Feminist Interpretation of the Scriptures (Eerdman’s Press, 2016).  She is General Editor for Wisdom Commentary Series, a new 58-volume feminist commentary on the Bible (Liturgical Press).

[5] Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part: Women in the Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1996. 147.

[6] NABRE, New American Bible (Revised Edition). Released on March 9, 2011, the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE) is the culmination of nearly 20 years of work by a group of nearly 100 scholars and theologians, including bishops, revisers and editors. The NABRE includes a newly revised translation of the entire Old Testament (including the Book of Psalms) along with the 1986 edition of the New Testament.

[7] 1 Cor 14:34-35, 1 Tim 2:12, Titus 2:3-4, for example

[8] Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1991. p 5

[9] Reid, 162

Go and do likewise, for as long as it takes

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Look what fear hath wrought
It left a mortal wound
What will become of us?
We hone our blades on denier’s strops
Fingers pointing, jabbing
Bleeding out
Oh we are so smart
No one asks “who is my neighbor?”

Our faces glow unnaturally
One fingered strategists
Judge, jury and executioners are we
Spreading the contagion
We picked up online
Swapping spit with flat screen pundits
Fear infects and deafens and errs
If only we would listen

What is that sound?
A still small voice.

Do something.
The Samaritan says

Do something now to stop the bleeding.
The voice of God urges,
And you will live

You know what to do
It is not so mysterious and remote
It is something very near to you
Already in your mouths and your hearts.
The Deuteronomist says

You have only to carry it out.

Go to the opposite side
Wherever it may be
Make haste to the injured ones
Speak words that heal
Tend to their wounds
Tend to them
For as long as it takes.

Now you, Go and do likewise.

—Susan Francesconi

Review: The Sacred Foodways of Film: Theological Servings in 11 Food Films

It was an absolute pleasure to read and review this book for the July 1-14, 2016 print edition of the National Catholic Reporter. After all, it’s about three of my favorite things, plus it’s authored by one of my favorite CTU professors, Antonio Sison, CPPS. It’s a trifecta of food, theology, and film that is sure to please your palate. Click the image below for the full review. Mangia!

foodways

Lambs Among Wolves

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

We often pray for God’s protection as if it was a temporary condition in need of regular renewal.

We are frightened, fully aware of our fragility and the evil of the world. We get hurt, physically and emotionally. Our scars are deep. We don’t trust. We are jittery, and for good reason. Naturally, in fearful times such as these many of us double up on our prayers for protection.

The seventy-two disciples in today’s gospel went out like “lambs among wolves” to proclaim the Kingdom of God in hostile territories. Yet they returned from their mission to Jesus rejoicing in their success, saying  “even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” [Luke 10:1-12, 17-20].

I wonder if we realize that we also have been given the power to do the same? Every day we are called to continue the Christian mission that the disciples handed down to us, to join ourselves to something bigger than ourselves, to work for the good of all of God’s creation, and to “tread upon the full force of the enemy.”

Just like the seventy-two disciples, and the communion of saints before us, we are protected. The power to oppose violence and proclaim the Kingdom of God is within us. Let’s not succumb to fear.  We aren’t wolf bait.

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Visit www.agnusday.org, the Lectionary comic strip, where each week Rick and Ted discuss one of the assigned readings from the Common Lectionary. http://www.agnusday.org/comics/185/luke-101-11-16-20-2007

Cartoon courtesy of © James Wetzstein, 2007