"Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!" At first glance, this well-known saying from the Book of Ecclesiastes sounds very pessimistic. Some might say that the rest of that biblical book gets even worse. However, such an evaluation is a misreading of a very sobering yet genuine perspective on life's pursuits, but not on life itself. This phrase from the ancient sage, the responsorial psalm for today, and the story in the gospel underscore what we all know so well from experience, namely, that everything and everyone is 'here today and gone tomorrow.' Because of this fact, the author of Ecclesiastes insists that the meaning of life cannot be found in possessions that do not last.
Some years ago a friend's wife was ill and needed surgery. My friend was terrified, as his wife of thirty years had never been sick. He began bargaining with God. He promised God that if she came through the surgery and recovered, he would give up cigarettes. He quit cold turkey right then and there. She recovered quickly after the surgery and returned to excellent health. In the gospel today Jesus tells a parable, followed by several sayings, to convey how extraordinarily loving and gracious God is and how greatly God wants to shower us with what is good. We don't have to try to convince God to be generous toward us-that is the very thing God wants to do!
Martha always gets a bad rap. In traditional interpretations of her story she is said to be too preoccupied or anxious about the details of hospitality to attend well to her guest. Her sister, by contrast, sits in rapt attention at Jesus' feet, drinking in his every word. When Jesus declares that it is Mary who has "chosen the better part," the message we are supposed to take away, according to many commentators, is that contemplation rather than active service is the harder but better choice, and that no one can minister without first sitting and learning at Jesus' feet. While finding the right balance between contemplation and action is a perennial challenge for most Christians, that may not actually be the question that today's gospel addresses. There are many tensions in the story left unanswered by the traditional interpretation.
The great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a series of reflections on the Sermon on the Mount entitled The Cost of Discipleship. In them he maintained that discipleship requires that we make a fundamental decision to follow Jesus and accept the consequences of that decision. The ultimate 'cost of discipleship' was exacted of Bonhoeffer himself when, on April 9, 1945, he was hanged by the Nazis for his participation in the German resistance and his involvement in attempts to assassinate Hitler. While discipleship might force some people to decide between life and death, few of us will be asked to pay that ultimate price. However, genuine discipleship does call us to live in a way that, at times, may require a certain degree of heroism.
Arriving at church a few Sundays ago was a family all bedecked in their very finest, carrying a tiny infant, engulfed in a long white gown, a miniature version of the white robe given to newly baptized adults at the Easter Vigil. The symbolism of the gown was perfect: the child who was "putting on Christ" was completely covered with the flowing fabric. It was even impossible to distinguish whether the child was a boy or a girl.
This Sunday's gospel reading is one of the most beautiful and provocative stories found in Luke's Gospel. Luke's story of the anointing of Jesus has echoes of the anointing stories in Matthew, Mark and John which take place in Bethany on the eve of Jesus' death, but this story in Luke has a very different setting and carries its own special impact.
One of the prominent themes in Catholic Social Teaching is the preferential option for the poor. The readings we are given to hear on this Sunday reveal God's own care for the poor, in the story of two widows, one in the reading from 1 Kings and one in the Gospel from Luke. These women certainly are among the poor.
Recently I visited a friend's mother who is receiving hospice care because of cancer. Although she looked frail and weary, her spirit remained positive and cheerful. I visited her many times in the past and always went away nourished both in body and spirit. This time it was no different. Her generosity overwhelmed me. She literally took whatever she had, blessed it, and gave it to me. Her acts of kindness and generous sharing are truly sacramental manifestations of God's love and generosity. Her actions exemplify the message of today's Scripture readings and the significance of today's celebration of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.