Friends, our readings for this weekend address three themes: first, that of “traveling” and each of us as “travelers” through our lives, second, “hospitality” as a way to be in our “traveling” and its counterpart—that of “gratitude” for the gifts given in life, and finally, the stance of being a good “listener” as we “travel” through our lives. Let’s take a deeper look.
The story from the Old Testament book of Genesis is one we have all heard. Abraham and Sarah, an elderly couple, give “hospitality” to three strangers traveling over land who happen to come by with “good news” for the couple.
The first thing we need to understand to truly appreciate this story, is that the Israelite people lived out of a deep conviction of “serving”—giving “hospitality” to the stranger and they went so far as to put themselves in the position of giving that hospitality to every “traveler” who might stop by, even if that person was someone, they considered to be an “enemy.”
The Israelite people were nomads—they were travelers, and one could find themselves stranded in the desert, of which much of the land was, and so were dependent on the generosity of others. So, it is out of this mindset that Abraham greeted the three strangers who came to his door.
Another aspect that is important to understand and one that a male priest would most likely not lift up, is the fact that it was the men who would offer the hospitality, but the women would be the ones who would get it ready. Now this is important to take note of as it will make a fine bridge to the gospel story today. We will get to that in a bit.
The other thing that you more than likely noticed, was when the travelers arrived, the “steer” was still walking about. I think this indicates the lengths that people would go to give hospitality to “the stranger.” Also, these travelers who brought “good news” must have had time on their hands to be able to save the “good news” until the physical hospitality was done. And again, keep this idea in mind when we discuss Jesus’ apparent reprimand of Martha in today’s gospel.
The gospel from Luke tells a familiar story too of another traveler and apparent close friend, our brother Jesus, who stops by his friends’ home for a bit of respite—the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
In the tradition and culture of the time that Jesus lived, it would have been customary and expected by most, that physical hospitality, that of food and drink, would be offered—enter Martha. But, as we know, Jesus was always one to turn things “on their heads”—he was about doing something new. Trouble erupts then between the two sisters because Mary apparently isn’t helping to get the meal ready.
Now probably as long as this gospel passage has been used, there has ensued the question, whose “hospitality,” that of Martha, who did the physical work of preparing the meal, or the “hospitality,” that of Mary who simply sat and listened to Jesus’ words, and no doubt offered emotional comfort that good friends do for each other. So, most of us have heard the issue of “work”—that of Martha and that of Mary addressed through the years, wondering whose work is most important.
Now, if we read this gospel literally, which, by the way, we should never do, it does appear that Jesus is downplaying the physical work of his friend, Martha. And, as one woman to another, I get that! I think Martha did too! All the women here know the feeling of preparing for guests, getting food ready, cleaning, and all that is needed to show, “hospitality” to the “traveler.”
The hurt that Martha feels, and expresses to Jesus is real and true, and women hearing this story are her allies—but again, Jesus is always about, saying and “doing something new!”
Granted, and I take issue with him too, for not having been more sensitive and saying it better. Here we see Jesus’ humanity getting in the way for him as it does for each of us at times. This is the trouble with taking “bits” of Scripture to make a point without also including the whole story. What I know of Jesus in all my study of him over the years, telling of his goodness, kindness, and mercy toward us all, tells me that there was more to the discussion when he realized that his words truly hurt the giver of the hospitality he was enjoying.
His purpose, again turning things on their head, was to encourage and call Martha to the other piece of hospitality –sitting quietly and listening to what a guest may need or want to talk about. Those in this world who may want to compare the “active” life with that of the “contemplative,” often site this story. I don’t think this was Jesus’ aim though, but more so, to find a “balance” between our busy, active lives and the slower, more peace-filled times that allow us space for reflection. Both are needed as Jesus indicated so well in his own earthly life. The Scriptures tell us of the times he left the crowds to be alone.
Let’s go back then, to the first reading from Genesis, and all the physical preparation in giving hospitality to the strangers. Think of how much sooner Abraham and Sarah would have known the very good news that their long-awaited baby would indeed be a reality, if they had balanced physical (active) giving with the more contemplative piece of hospitality—that of listening. This is a lesson for all of us.
Regarding Jesus and of how he most likely ministered to Martha, because comparing the work of the two sisters, was clearly not the way to go; he probably sat them both down, asked them to work together on the physical meal, so then both could enjoy the “spiritual” meal of their friendship with each other.
So friends, we have discussed the themes of being a “traveler,” which we all are in life—that of giving “hospitality,” physical, emotional, and spiritual to each other, which includes, “listening,” and a slower pace so as to really achieve all of the above.
And the piece, which Paul speaks of so well to the Colossians is that of “gratitude,” a virtue that really makes all of the above complete. Paul is always grateful to Christ for the ways his life has been changed through his relationship with our all-inclusive God, and for Paul, that was Christ.
We too friends, have the same call as Abraham and Sarah, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Paul—each of us are “travelers” here, having a human experience and asked to give “hospitality” in all, conceivable ways, and to always respond with deep gratitude for all the gifts received from our loving God. Amen? Amen!