The story of Martha and Mary in today’s Gospel as well as the account of Abraham’s visitors at the terebinth of Mamre have hospitality as an important element of the stories.
Hospitality is the action of hosting a guest. In ancient times hospitality was seen as a very important element of life. Guests traveling through an area would rely on the hospitality of the landowners and homeowners for protection, food and shelter while passing through their lands.
The importance of this aspect of hospitality may be lost to us due to the general availability of hotels, motels, restaurants and convenience stores when we travel. Another aspect to hospitality was the treatment of the guest. The guest would be treated with great respect and honor as they were welcomed to a home.
Abraham acts accordingly when he sees the three men standing outside his tent in the hot day. Notice he runs out to them to offer hospitality, saying: “Sir, if I may ask you this favor, please do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves under the tree … and afterward let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves.”
All these things will be provided and done for the guests precisely because they are guests. Abraham then runs to Sara to have her prepare the meal. It is not just “left overs” or scraps, it is a feast. After the meal is prepared Abraham serves the three travelers.
The gospel account involves the hospitality offered to Jesus by Martha and Mary. We are all familiar with the story. Martha is busy with the details of hospitality and hosting. She is upset that Mary is not helping.
When Martha confronts Jesus on this situation he replies: “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.”
The story retold by St. Luke offers some particular teachings on hospitality and discipleship. Hospitality involves a relationship of friendship. The guest is treated as a friend. In this story, Jesus is the guest. We learn in other parts of the Gospel that Jesus was indeed friends with Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus.
At the same time, Jesus is seen as a great prophet, one who speaks for God. When Jesus offers his reply to Martha about Mary choosing the better part, he does not say that what Martha is doing is bad or wrong, only that what Mary was doing is “better.” He makes a comparison between the two activities that are both part of hospitality.
The two activities could be described as this: “hosting the guest” and “being attentive to the guest.” The “hosting” part includes providing the food and drink, shelter and comfort. The “being attentive” part includes “being present” to the guest, listening to him and sharing friendship.
Mary chooses the more important aspect of hospitality when she and Martha welcome Jesus to their home. Mary not only fulfills the duties and responsibilities of hospitality but she recognizes that Jesus has something to offer her. She “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” She is in the position of the disciple at the feet of the Master. She learns from Him.
While she offers Jesus attention and friendship, He offers her the words of life. Martha, on the other hand, is missing out on this important part of the encounter.
In our lives as disciples of Jesus we too act as hosts offering hospitality to Jesus as a guest. We welcome Him into the home of our hearts. We open ourselves to His divine presence and we invite Him to dwell with us.
Though Jesus is always present to us through prayer, this presence is drawn into focus and the encounter becomes more acute. In prayer we sit at the feet of the Master like Mary and we listen.
As we listen we grow in our relationship with the Lord, we grow in our friendship with the Lord, we grow in discipleship.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.