This past week, as I was packing for my impending move to Tennessee, I noticed the words on a picture frame someone had given me many years ago: Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. That’s Hebrews 13:12 (in the 17th-century King James Translation), and it refers back to 2 famous stories in Genesis – the one proclaimed at Mass this Sunday about Abraham’s hospitality to three “men” who showed up at the entrance of his tent (Genesis 18:1-10a), and again, a little later, Lot’s hospitality to two of these same “men” when they showed up to extricate Lot from the doomed city of Sodom.
Both stories highlight ancient middle eastern expectations and traditions of hospitality. Abraham in particular is depicted as an especially lavish host. One rabbinic midrash interpreting this story says that Abraham kept his tent open on all four sides, so that he could quickly welcome travelers approaching from all directions!
Extravagant middle eastern hospitality as practiced by the virtuous Abraham certainly sets the scene for what happens in the story, but it is essentially just that – a scene-setter. If we see this story mainly as a lesson about being welcoming, we might miss the less predictable part of the story, when the visitors surprisingly asked Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?” and Abraham (apparently ignoring the breach of decorum in such a question about their host family’s private life inside the tent) actually answered, thus setting the stage for the guests’ amazing response, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.” Only then does it become fully obvious what the story is really all about – not Abraham’s conventional hospitality to his guests, but his unconventional guests’ revelation of God’s plan and promise.
The setting for today’s gospel story (Luke 10:38-42) also starts out as a conventional scene of hospitality to an honored guest – Jesus being welcomed and waited on by Martha in her home. This story of Jesus at Martha’s home is more easily recognizable and familiar. It could take place almost anywhere, at almost any time - even in a midtown Manhattan apartment. And anyone who has ever hosted a party or planned and coordinated a social event of any kind can immediately relate to Martha’s being burdened with much serving.
Again, however, the heart of the story is not Martha’s welcoming behavior, but the breakdown in decorum caused by Mary’s not helping her sister. For centuries, this story has been cited to represent two complementary traditions in the spiritual life – the active, represented by Martha, and the contemplative, represented by Mary. Nowadays, it is sometimes seen as symbolizing two particular personality types. When we hear someone spoken of as a Martha or a Mary, biblically literate people immediately recognize what is being suggested.
Obviously, hospitality is important. Presumably, Jesus and his disciples expected to be fed, and did actually appreciate all of Martha’s efforts to provide them with a proper welcome in her home! Likewise, being a welcoming community is often hailed as a great thing in parish life.
But, as Martha was to learn, welcoming is only the first step and certainly not an end in itself. For Martha in the gospel, as for Abraham earlier, much more important than their hospitality to their guests was the identity of their guests and what they had to offer to their hosts. Likewise, for us, being a welcoming community is at most a first step – an important first step, to be sure, but only a first step. The important question is to what and for what are we welcoming one another?
In the Abraham story, the regular rituals of hospitality led to the unscripted, unexpected promise of an immediate heir, while, in the gospel, Mary listened attentively to the ultimate fruit of that promise, Abraham’s greatest descendant, Jesus. Abraham and Mary listened to the Lord’s word, and as a result their lives would never be the same again. When we welcome one another to the Lord’s table, let us learn to imitate Martha’s solicitude in order all the more to imitate Mary’s receptiveness.
Homily at St. Paul the Apostle Church, NYC, July 17-18, 2010