Updated: Aug 22
Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
As we've mentioned many times before, we believe in One God who is a Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And God created us in his image. So as God is a community of Divine Persons, community is part of what it means to be human. We're meant to live in community.
An essential aspect of the human experience is the notion of hospitality, and by extension, the social graces that go along with that, from beginning to end of sharing time with others. I'm sure we all must have some experience with welcoming others into our space and being attentive to their care.
Guests also have a part to play by receiving the hospitality of others graciously. As guests, we can to make our “rounds” upon our arrival, greeting each and every person, and exchanging a few polite words before finally settling into the scene. And when we depart, our tradition often requires three attempts at saying goodbye: one at the dinner table, one when going towards the door, and a final one at the driveway.
In some cultures, guests can often bring something to a gathering. You may be familiar with the Japanese practice of Omiyage, which is usually translated as, souvenir, but is a bit more nuanced. When returning from a trip and being welcomed back to the workplace or when being received into someone’s home, it’s customary to bring a modest gift purchased while traveling, such as a regional food. Many of us do this instinctively. Think of when we might bring our host bring a box of chocolates, or a bottle of wine, or packet of coffee when visiting a friend.
Hospitality can also be a matter of survival, at least from the business perspective. In Hawaii, where tourism is a major industry, we see how hospitality is crucial to the success of the local economy. Whether they be hotels, restaurants, airlines, cruises, or any other business that caters to tourists, hospitality is expected and commented upon, whether for good or for ill. Hospitality can be a defining factor of one’s enjoyment of a vacation. Those businesses that do it best stay in business; those who don’t need to are hard-pressed to excel in other ways in order to survive.
Hospitality can also be a matter of survival literally. Today, we gain a rare insight into the practice of hospitality as it existed in biblical times in the Ancient Near East. We see the moment of encounter between Abraham and the Lord, who appeared to him as three strangers.
As we heard, when he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them; and bowing to the ground, he said: “Sir, if I may ask this favor, please do not go on past your servant. And then Abraham ministers to them, having food and water brought to them, and he waited on them under the tree while they ate.
From our perspective, such an exaggerated deference to strangers might seem excessive. But the context from which such a practice evolved could often be a matter of life or death.
When wanderers encountered persons who were local to the area, there was always the potential for conflict.
On the part of travelers, survival in the desert was only possible if they could rely on food, water, and shelter in the regions through which they journeyed. Those resources were often sparse; and they didn’t have our modern luxuries of transportation or food storage.
On the part of residents, their places of stability couldn’t be maintained if they constantly had to safeguard their resources from strangers who were intent on survival. And so, when one entered into the space of another, it benefited both for the encounter to be an amiable one.
Abraham gives us a beautiful example of a peaceful exchange between traveler and resident. Appearing as three travelers, the Lord stood quietly near the tent of Abraham. Seeing them, Abraham essentially begged them for the opportunity to serve them. Then they departed in peace.
In our gospel passage, we see a different example of hospitality that didn’t go as well. Martha, who had initially welcomed Jesus into her home, quickly made the visit about Martha when she became burdened: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Me. Me. Me.
She accuses Jesus of not caring. And then she proceeds to tell Jesus—God—what he should do. She demands that Jesus enter into her family drama and take her side. Very gently, Jesus corrects Martha and reminds her of the essence of hospitality: namely, care for the visitor—in this case, being attentive to the Lord, as his disciple. Being focused on the Lord, and not on oneself was the summons, which Mary had adhered to.
Now to be fair, this is Saint Martha we're talking about. By the end of the gospels, Martha will take this lesson to heart. In the last week of our Lord’s earthly life, as he travels to Jerusalem for what will be the final time, he’ll seek refuge with his friends, Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus.
At that time, Martha will say no word. We’ll find her serving in quiet humility. Her sister Mary will again be at the Lord’s feet, anointing them with precious ointment and wiping them with her hair. Ironically, it will be an apostle—Judas—who breaks the sacred silence and violate that sanctuary of hospitality.
Our readings today invite to reflect upon—and recommit to—the charitable practice of hospitality: in the home, in the workplace, at a store, in a restaurant, on the road, at this Church, everywhere. We all are travelers of a sort—pilgrims on our way—and it is a matter of our eternal survival that our encounters with others be charitable ones. May God bless you.
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1644) by Johannes
Vermeer. Oil on canvas. Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh.