My father had a terrible habit of bringing home guests for dinner without telling my mother. He would arrive, an hour before meal time, and announce that he’d invited this visiting colleague, or that friend’s sister’s nephew who was home from college, and oh, yeah, by the way, their family is coming too! He always insisted that it shouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience – we always had fish in the freezer. “Just throw another salmon filet on the grill!” he’d say, and then trot off to play host. My father could at times fit well the stereotype of the man who had no clue as to the difficulty and work that comes with preparing a meal, keeping house, and hosting guests. So while he played at being host, listening to stories, telling a few himself, my mother would rush about setting the extra places, padding the main dish with this or that thing from the pantry or freezer, making sure we were hospitable and welcoming.
Hospitality doesn’t come easy, but my mother, like so many of us, had a deeply engrained sense that it is of vital importance. We should be welcoming, we tell ourselves. And, the scriptures seem to back this up. When three strangers happen upon Abraham and Sarah, as we read in Genesis, Abraham scrambles to find provision so that he can host them. As the strangers eat they promise a child will be born to Sarah, barren and in her later years. Abraham and Sarah have unwittingly hosted angels. Those same strangers would later be treated inhospitably at Sodom and Gomorrah leading to that cities ultimate punishment and demise. As the prophet Ezekiel explains, “this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”
In our culture Sodom has become synonymous with sexuality and in some places deviance, yet the sin of Sodom, it would seem, was inhospitality and a lack of generosity.
And so it goes throughout the whole of scripture, story after story plays up the biblical and God-given imperative for hospitality, the cry to welcome the stranger, to host the foreigner, and to see to the needs of the needy. Would that we could heed that imperative, in a culture rife with inhospitality – ours is a culture of gated communities where interloping teens are gunned down, Ours is a nation of higher walls, of deeper suspicion, of greater fear – how can we ever hear the message of hospitality enough?
Even the gospels point to the primacy of hospitality in our faith. Last week’s parable in Luke, Jesus describes the story of a Good Samaritan, of a man who shows abundant generosity and hospitality to a man beaten and bruised on the side of the road. There was the charge to the 70 apostles to go and preach and heal and to proclaim God’s kingdom – and when they come into a town that does not show hospitality toward them, what are they to do? Shake the dust! Hospitality is so important in the gospels, Jesus is not only calling us to share it with others, but to be willing to rely on it from others.
And, so it is, that every time today’s gospel lesson is read, many of us, myself included, recoil at what appears to be a message of condemnation for hospitality. Jesus, like the apostles he has sent out, is traveling on the road doing his ministry. He is on the way to Jerusalem, where he knows he will confront the powers of his day. And, on the way, he is welcomed into the house of a woman named Martha who immediately sets to work preparing food and, in short, being hospitable to Jesus. Simultaneously, Martha’s sister Mary sits down at the feet of Jesus, she assumes the role of a student listening to a Rabbi, a role suited only for men in her culture, and begins to listen as he teaches and tells stories. Martha, seeing her sister shirking her duties, and seeing her sister stepping beyond her role and status as a woman, she appeals to Jesus, asking him to notice that Mary seems to be forgetting who she is.
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me” She says.
Don’t you think she ought to help me? Don’t you think we could get going on this all important hospitality you’ve been teaching her about?
And, Jesus rebukes Martha.
”Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
At this point, let me say three things. First, the dynamic of my father inviting home guests unannounced is vastly different than the context and dynamics of Martha hosting Jesus in the 1st century. Second, had my mother asked my father, as she did occasionally, to stop playing host and to come help her in the kitchen, he would have done so immediately and without question. And, third, if he had ever said anything remotely close to how Jesus responded, she would have likely replied – Fine! Fix your own darn meal then! I work and I work and I work, and here you are sitting on you duff doing nothing!
I’m surprised Martha doesn’t respond similarly.
And, this is how we hear it, in an age of busy people keeping busy, so many a preacher has turned this story into one about being vs. doing, about unplugging and letting go, of slowing down, and of spending some time in quiet. As important as these messages are, and even with these themes just under the surface of the story, to read it thus not only alienates many of us who hear it, it is simply not the whole truth. As my wife Erin likes to say, if Jesus is more interested in being vs. doing no wonder his church accomplishes so little.
So, are we getting mixed messages from the gospel? I don’t think so.
If we do not read today’s gospel lesson as a continuation of all that has preceded it, it would be easy to take it out of context. As it happens, the story of Martha and Mary is, as we have just learned, a continuation of the gospel of Luke, specifically as Luke’s gospel explores the Greatest Commandment – Love of God and Love of neighbor. These two things form the equal halves of our life in faith. As scripture reveals and as we have learned, we cannot have the one without the other. We do not know how to love our neighbor if we cannot love God, nor the reverse. And, love, is as we know, bound up as much in the being as the doing. These things are hard to hold in our lives in equal portion. Sometimes the being drifts into laziness and avoidance, and sometimes the doing slides into over-functioning and distraction.
And, this is where Jesus rebuke’s Martha. He does not call her away from her action as much as her distraction. It is as if his admonishment is a call for her to focus not on the many things but on the one thing, on God, on God with us. Such a call requires intentional vulnerability and openness, a willingness to let go of some tasks to serve the greatest task. To focus in will require discipline and discernment – a willingness to sit at the feet of the teacher, to spend time in learning and prayer such that we can see God when God shows up, and welcome him.
For our God comes to us in many guises, in the form of the hungry and the poor, in the form of the foreigner and the outcast, in the form of the guest and the visitor. And, seldom does one truly welcome God into their midst without finding the tables turned, without finding that the guest has become the host, without finding themselves welcomed into the very presence of the One in whom all become brothers and sisters, and without being invited to join in the compelling mission of God, which is to bring hope and restoration and hospitality to the whole world.