Thought for the week - 17 July
“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.”
Whenever we travel on holiday, we are dependent on the hospitality of others. We may have to pay for it, but the quality of their openness to us either enhances or detracts from our enjoyment. Through hospitality we are made to feel as if we are at home. And when we feel at home, we want to stay.
In cultures like that described in the first reading, hospitality was essential for survival. The host treated potential enemies as guests, thus neutralizing any threat; and the guest was dependent on the generosity of the host for necessary food, drink and shelter. Such hospitality was a temporary arrangement, but it assured everyone of safety.
There is something different about this story. The men who approach Abraham’s tent are not ordinary travellers. This section from a longer passage does not inform us who they were, but it does tell us that one of the men foretells the birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah. Who would have such knowledge? Surely, someone acting as a messenger of God. Some have interpreted this mysterious threesome as the Holy Trinity itself. Be that as it may, the point of the story is captured in a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:1).
We find another example of hospitality in today’s Gospel story:
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Since Martha welcomed Jesus, she was probably the householder, responsible for showing hospitality—which she did. Mary, on the other hand, entertained the guest. But as we find so often in the teaching of Jesus, priorities seem to be turned upside down. Martha’s indignation is not simply a sign of peevishness. She is concerned with service. (The word used is diakonia, a word that had ministerial connotations in the early Christian community.) Jesus insists that there is something even more important than hospitality, or any other form of service. It is commitment to him. In no way does Jesus imply that diakonia is unimportant. It is good, but attending to him is “the better part.”
In the reading from Paul, we find what appears to be a completely different theme. Paul speaks of his willingness to suffer for the sake of others. He may not have opened his home to others, but he gave of himself.
What might these readings have to say to us who are not dependent upon hospitality for survival, or who might wonder why Mary’s attention to Jesus was chosen over Martha’s service? First, we are certainly called to be hospitable or open to others, not only with our homes or goods, but with our very persons. Second, this openness should spring from our commitment to Jesus. When we are committed to him, it will make little difference whether we suffer like Paul, or serve like Martha, or sit in rapt attention like Mary. We will be doing God’s will.