Hospitality. Both the reading from Genesis (18:1-10a) in which Abraham extends hospitality to God and the gospel reading in which Jesus visits his friends Martha and Mary feature hospitality as a main theme. They also raise questions as to what hospitality really is.
In the hot, dry nomadic cultures within which the Bible was born, refusing to extend hospitality to the traveller would be the moral equivalent of murder. Chances are if he didn’t get some food, water and shelter he’d be dead long before he found the next oasis.
How does hospitality translate into our time and culture where there’s a 7-ll store on every other block? The story of Martha and Mary gives us a clue. Jesus never says that Martha ought to stop working. Hey, somebody has to make dinner.
What concerns Jesus is that Martha is “anxious and worried about many things” – something implied earlier when the story tells us Martha was “burdened with much serving”. Hospitality has an interior as well as an exterior component. One might be doing all the right things in preparing a sumptious dinner. If the stress of the preparations makes the host or hostess unable to be fully present to his/her guests, however, than clearly “the better part” of hospitality is missing.
Putting both parts of hospitality together – the “lesser part ” of the actual preparations which do need to be done and the “better part” of being fully present to the guest – is by no means easy. For me, it all comes apart when it comes to the “drop in” visit. Unless you’re living in Iceland and unexpectedly find yourself in my town for the only day of your life, please call first. I’ve informed all family members and friends not to ever throw me a surprise party. The reason – if I come home tired that night, or I’m just not in a mood to be with other people, I might very well throw them all out.
I’d like to think that my aversion to the “drop in visit” (gasp!) is rooted in Hospitality – I want to be ready for you so that I can be fully present and so that I can calm the whirlwind of my busy life to make sure we have a few hours of peace. I can really sympathize with Martha.
And yet – I know people who are as busy as I am and who do seem to be able, like Mary, to drop everything and be fully present and welcoming at a moment’s notice. These folks offer a tremendous gift of hospitality to the rest of us – because the truth is that despite our best efforts to plan and balance, sometimes life just happens. Not so long ago, there was an awful case of sexual abuse by a parish youth minister in my area. The crime came to light because the mother of a friend of the girl who was abused noticed one evening when the girls were all gathered at her house that this particular child seemed unusually burdened. “Is there something you want to tell me,?”, she asked. And with that simple and pure gesture of hospitality, the floodgates opened.
There are times when our hospitality will take the form of Martha and other times when it will take the form of Mary. But when in doubt – given the fact that God can pop up in the most unlikely places – best to lean towards Mary.
Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgirm)
(To find my book length works on the scriptures, visit www.twentythirdpublications.com)