Genesis 18:1-10a+Psalm 15+Colossians 1:15-28+Luke 10:38-42
One of my favorite things about the writer of the Gospel of Luke is that he gets women. When the angel Gabriel announced to a young Mary that she would become pregnant with God’s son, she doesn’t say “no way” or “oh, goody.” No, she says something like, “Yeah, right. How’s that going to happen when I haven’t even had sex yet?” She may even have thrown in an eyeroll or a “stupid angel” muttered under her breath for good measure. She was, after all, a young teenager. Later, when the woman with a 12-year hemorrhage makes her way through a crowd to just touch the hem of his garment, the compassion with which he looks on her, and his words, “Daughter, you faith has made you well; go in peace” are some of the most gentle words he ever says (8:43-48). He knows it isn’t easy being a woman in his world, and he knows that she came to him at great risk. And he doesn’t say anything about sins being forgiven. Only to go in peace.
Today, we have the classic story of two sisters, and Luke nails it. The busy one, the caretaker, the hostess, the older one, gets upset with her sister who is sitting around and not helping at all. “Can’t she see how busy I am. She should know I need help. Jesus, do something about this.” And the younger one, Mary, undoubtedly eyerolling at her sister, and maybe even giving her a scowl because Martha is reporting her to their friend, their guest, their rabbi.
The moralizing around this story often ends up something like this:
Martha was too preoccupied with serving and wasn’t paying attention to Jesus, so that tells us that we are to slow down, stop the busyness, and be mindful about the presence of God in our midst.
This is only partly true, however.
I can’t overstate the importance of hospitality in Jewish culture at the time of Jesus. In the Ancient Near East, hospitality to travelers could mean the difference between life and death in the desert. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it was not just a nice thing to do but a moral command. We see this in the way Abraham responds to the three visitors, hurrying to invite them to sit, to be washed, and to eat. Abraham seems to be aware that these were messengers from God, but a later New Testament writer says that we should extend hospitality no matter who it is, because “thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2, ESV).
Martha had a job to do, a requirement of her faith and her culture, and Jesus was an honored guest, so you can imagine how flustered and frazzled she must have been to provide good hospitality him and the Twelve who accompanied him. Jesus does not critique her for the hospitality, only the manner in which it was provided. Rabbinic literature of a later time specifically forbids the offering of hospitality by acting miserable while doing it!
Yet that’s not quite it, either. In contrasting Mary with Martha, it’s pretty clear that Jesus wants for Martha to be able to pay attention, to be mindful of his presence, to enjoy the company of her guests. If you’re going to be entertaining God and angels, it would probably be a good idea to save some energy to be truly present with them!
The hospitality of Abraham, the hospitality of Mary and Martha, the hospitality of those who entertain angels unawares is central to our faith tradition, one that we inherited from our Jewish family. Scripture is rife with the command to welcome the stranger and the sojourner, reminding the people of Israel that they, too, were once sojourners (Deut. 10:19, Exodus 22:21, 1 Chron. 29:15, etc). As our bishop pointed out in a video message this week, in Matthew 25, Jesus gives us even more reason to show such hospitality:
…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me (25:35).
The people all look at him like he’s crazy. “What do you mean we did these things to you? When did we do that?”
And you all know how he answers that. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40). When it comes to the situation on our southern border and in Hudson County and in New York, in Libya and Turkey and Greece – wherever refugees and immigrants are to be found – our bishop challenges us to set aside politics for a moment and ask ourselves, “How would you respond if that was Jesus?” You may believe in strong borders and tight immigration policy, but when confronted with the fear, hunger, thirst, and poverty of these neighbors of ours, “How would you respond if that was Jesus?”
It is no accident that the Mary and Martha story follows the Good Samaritan parable. We are shown what it means to be a neighbor and, as importantly, who our neighbor actually is (which is anyone in need of mercy), and then we are given a lesson in the kind of hospitality required of us. And it isn’t one which sees our duty or our service as a burden, as something that makes resentment well up in us. And most importantly, it’s hospitality that invites us to pay attention, to listen, to hear, and to be present with our guest. Mary’s “better part” (10:42) is that she provided hospitality by her attentive presence.
There is a great temptation for those of us inclined to activism and service in the world to become frazzled and resentful when it feels like we are the ones doing all the heavy lifting. Sometimes that’s our own fault, because we haven’t taken the time to sit and listen – to God, to our neighbor, to our friends. There is a time for action, and there is a time for contemplation. And when Jesus is right in front of us, the need for our attention is at least as great as the need for us to provide some kind of help.
The truth is, when confronted with the pain of the world, it is undoubtedly easier to roll our sleeves up and do what needs to be done than to sit with our neighbor and see the pain and the suffering up close and personal. But if we’re going to meet Jesus, that’s just what we need to be doing, and then we’ll truly understand why all the things that we do are really important. It’s hard if not impossible to be frazzled and resentful if you’ve taken the time to befriend the person in front of you.
And if we really believe that we see Jesus in the face of our neighbors, we would then move heaven and earth to make life better for them.
When we come to this table each week, Jesus is both our guest and our host, offering hospitality beyond measure to those who have chosen to follow where he leads. So, take and eat, and spend some time in the presence of Christ, and be strengthened to go into the world to see the face of Jesus in everyone you meet. Who knows, you may even entertain angels unawares.