July 21, 2019
SIXTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Abraham hosts three visitors
The just person lives in God’s presence
Paul’s afflictions, and the cross
Mary and Martha welcome Jesus and friends
Hospitality is a serious matter in a harsh natural environment like the desert. Conditions are unforgiving. Should you visit the Sinai Peninsula, perhaps on a pilgrimage to the mount of Moses’ vision, you will notice in that severe landscape small structures at each oasis, each looking like a shelter in a city park. Inside you will find the makings for coffee and other small amenities. You are free to partake. The only condition is that you contribute what you can, to make it welcoming for the next visitor.
One of the most famous hospitality passages in the Old Testament is today’s story of Abraham and Sarah, and their three visitors. Abraham’s eagerness to meet his visitors’ needs is exemplary. Everything is in excess. Note that first he offers “some water be brought, that you may bathe your feet.” Not long ago we heard the Gospel story of the 72 sent out in pairs to precede Jesus in his journey to Jerusalem. Those towns that failed to offer hospitality were to be told, “The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.” In other words, they were accused of failing a primary duty of hospitality to the stranger.
In Abraham’s case, it turns out that one of the three strangers is the Lord. There is much of mystery happening here. But one thing is clear — entertaining strangers may have you welcoming God under your roof. Or, “tent,” in this case. I am reminded of Dorothy Day, who told her Catholic Workers that Christ was the guest knocking at the door. The place to find the divine is in the stranger among us.
This particular reading from Genesis seems to be chosen because of the Gospel story from Luke. Mary and Martha welcome Jesus, along with some of his disciples, as they make their way toward Jerusalem. Martha brings a complaint to Jesus about her sister, Mary. Martha is doing all the work of hospitality, while Mary is doing nothing but sitting, listening to Jesus talk. Her plea to Jesus, however, is turned down when he utters the famous lines, “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.”
This story has become famous for the interpretation that would say it teaches that the contemplative life is superior to the active life of discipleship. It seldom fails to irritate others who retort that the contemplative can pursue their way of life because someone else is doing the work that makes it possible. But of course members of contemplative orders actually do work hard, to maintain their way of life.
In any case, it is not likely that Luke had this question in mind, since the contemplative practices of Christianity are still some centuries down the road yet. More likely, we are witnessing a contrast in hospitality. And it confronts our expectations with a paradox. We expect that the work of hospitality is exactly what Martha is doing. And of course, it is. But Martha spoils her good work. As Luke Timothy Johnson notes, “her preoccupation and resentment led her to break the rules of hospitality far more radically than did her sister, for she asked a stranger to intervene in a family rivalry.” And Mary is also attending to the guest, by listening to him. Personal attention is also a part of welcoming another.
Jesus says that Mary has chosen “the better part.” So something about discipleship is, in fact, being said here. We recall that Jesus’ mission on the road to Jerusalem is teaching. Mary recognizes that.
For reflection: Hospitality might be another name for the works of mercy.
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.