Andrei Rublev’s The Trinity, depicting three angels at Mamre.

God's Word on Sunday: God’s messengers come in many forms

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  • July 12, 2019

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 21 (Year C) Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

What does a messenger from God look like? Probably very ordinary — Scripture tells us that many have entertained angels without knowing it. There is no need for wings, harps and dazzling lights — after all, the word “angel” simply means messenger.

The angels that cross our path may be from the heavenly realm or perhaps an ordinary person chosen to relay a message. They might even be unaware of their mission. It is very important to be ready when they come, and we can accomplish that by not always judging by outward appearances.

Abraham and Sarah had been waiting decades for the arrival of the promised son and heir, but it seemed hopeless. The text tells us that the Mamre experience was an encounter with God, but all Abraham saw was three men approaching his tent. He greeted the angels with the effusive welcome that was so much part of ancient near eastern culture.

His openness and kindness were a vital part of the delivery of God’s message. During the meal, the angels proclaimed the long-awaited message: Sarah will conceive and bear a son. The promise will be fulfilled; God is faithful.

Rublev’s famous icon of the angels at Mamre depicts three angels around the table, with an extra empty place. Many have seen this as an invitation to dine with the Trinity and to welcome God’s messengers in whatever form they appear. How do we know who the messengers are? We don’t, so it is wise to treat every person we encounter as a potential messenger from God.

Paul poured himself out constantly in pursuit of his mission — to proclaim God’s mercy to all, even the Gentiles. According to Paul, this had been the plan from the very beginning, but was only reaching completion in his time.

God is the God of all. It sounds rather trite and mundane, but its implications are profound. It requires a new way of thinking about God and about humanity.

Paul’s mission brought him a lot of opposition and suffering, but he rejoiced in all of it. He insisted that he was making up for whatever was lacking in the afflictions of Christ. Nothing was lacking in Christ’s sufferings — this was a rhetorical way for Paul to express his commitment to continuing the mission of Jesus and sharing in His suffering. It is really the call of every Christian.

The story of Martha and Mary has generated a lot of commentary over the centuries, most of it off the mark. It has nothing to do with the active and contemplative lives or how many portions should be served at a monastic table.

In our own time, Luke’s Jesus was not putting Martha down because she was a strong woman and householder. In its own context, it had (and still has for us today) a very pointed message about the role of women in the Christian community.

Read the text carefully: Martha asked Jesus to send Mary back to the kitchen and the preparations for the meal. In effect, this would have been confining her to a traditional role. The point that Luke’s Jesus made was that hearing the word of God and acting on it is the most important task we have. Mary had the right to hear the word and to be instructed as a disciple.

This was a pushback against many attitudes of the time that deemed women unworthy of studying Scripture or being instructed. The reply of Jesus, along with His insistence that Mary’s choice would not be taken from her, was probably aimed at Luke’s community near the end of the first century. Not all followers of Jesus were prepared to look upon women as equals in the community, an attitude that is unfortunately still with us.

People have tended to label themselves as either Martha or Mary. Those distinctions are meaningless, merely describing personality types. The call to hear the word of God and to put it into practice is both a command and an invitation for all believers. And it will never be taken from anyone.

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