Our first reading and gospel text are both about hospitality and its importance in the lives of God’s people. Hospitality was a highly valued and widely practiced custom in the ancient world, especially in the Middle East. Hosts were expected to provide food, shelter, amenities, and protection to traveling strangers, who, as in our first lesson, sometimes turned out to be messengers from God traveling incognito. The author of Hebrews tells us that we may entertain angels unawares. In Greek culture, which had a significant influence on the ancient world, Zeus was celebrated as the god of hospitality, and the practice of hospitality was one of the things that separated high Greek civilization from the “barbarians.” Often stories depicting hospitality ended with the host bestowing gifts upon the guest. Jewish examples of hospitality abound in Hebrew scripture; and in the New Testament Luke displays a particular interest in issues of hospitality both in his gospel and the Book of Acts.
As Mikeal C. Parsons, who is Professor and Kidd L. and Buna Hitchock Macon Chair of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, explains: ‘The ethic of hospitality as depicted by Luke provides a solid foundation for Christian habits and practices within the community, where we have unlimited responsibilities to our fellow believers, but also with the world, where we are called to offer hospitality to those unlike us in culture, ethnicity or religion, as well as to offer assistance to those in immediate crisis. Christians are called to extend hospitality both as hosts and guests, and to fellow believers and non-believers alike.’
Hospitality is still very important to us today. We extend hospitality in our homes to our friends and families, and here at church to all who are present. The hospitality of coffee hour, the breakfasts and special meals we share, are very important to our sense of being community. For those who volunteer at the I.N.N. or the New Life food pantry, a feeling of welcome and hospitality is extended to the guests. We practice the ancient Christian virtue of hospitality, we do not simply tolerate or endure people who might not be exactly like us; we engage and interact with them, whether we are guest or host.
There is another important theme in addition to hospitality in our gospel story. Jesus has stopped by the home of his good friends, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Martha, the host, exemplifies ideal hospitality by busily caring for him. Although Martha has fulfilled the typical expectations associated with a host, it is her sister, Mary, for whom Jesus reserves his highest praise. There is a striking contrast between the sisters’ actions: “She had a sister named Mary, who had taken a seat at the feet of the Lord and was listening to him speak. Martha, though, was distracted by all that needed to be done.” Martha busies herself with the details of serving while Mary chooses to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to what he was saying.
Apparently exasperated, Martha confronts Jesus about her sister’s actions, “Lord, doesn’t it concern you that my sister left me to serve alone? So, speak to her in order that she might help me.” Rather surprisingly, Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary, in fact, has made the right choice, and it will not be taken from her.” Although we might jump to the conclusion that by praising Mary, Jesus is criticizing Martha, the original hearers would not have understood Jesus’ praise of Mary to be criticism of Martha’s hospitality. The fact that he repeats her name is an example of a rhetorical device used to indicate compassion or empathy.
This brief story turns on the meaning of the “one thing” which according to Jesus’ logic is the “best part” which Mary has chosen. According to Jesus, hearing the word of God’s messenger is the one thing that is absolutely necessary. Providing for his physical needs is important, but not as critical as hearing the word. Even though hospitality is a very important factor as a social context for the spread of the Christian message, it is even more important to have followers who attend to the word as told by Jesus and his messengers. So Jesus is not condemning Martha’s frenzied activity, rather he is focusing on commending Mary’s act of discipleship. We, too sometimes get distracted by all that needs to be done. But the most important thing is to hear and share the message of God’s love, compassion and justice.
Parsons notes that in later interpretation of scripture, Martha also represents what is known as the vita active, the active life. She offers exemplary hospitality to Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, represents the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life. She sits at the feet of Jesus as a student and listens to him teach. Both the active life and the contemplative life are needed; to choose one over the other can upset the balance that is needed for the Christian community to thrive. The Christian patriarch Ambrose observed in his Exposition of the Gospel of Luke: “Virtue does not have a single form. In the example of Martha and Mary, there is added the busy devotion of the one and the pious attention of the other to the Word of God.” Yet Jesus gently reminds Martha – and us – that Mary’s is “the better part, because, as Parsons puts it, “actions — even acts of Christian charity and hospitality — if they are to be sustained, always follow being; that is, what we do flows naturally from who we are.” First we must hear, understand and accept in our hearts the Word of God; and then our natural response will be to act on it by demonstrating hospitality and kindness to those whom we encounter. Amen.