Genesis 18.1-10a; Colossians 1.15-28; Luke 10.38-42
I’ve been lucky enough to do some travelling in countries where I have spent time in local households – I’m thinking in particular of India and Poland – where I have experienced that culture of hospitality which can be almost overwhelming, certainly humbling in the efforts made by those, who sometimes have very little, to make the guest feel welcome and valued. I’ve known that, as guest, I will not be leaving without an extremely full stomach, and a share in the best that the household has to offer. I’m not sure we quite have that same culture in Scotland – many people are of course extremely hospitable, but we don’t have the sense of the almost sacred duty of hospitality, the dropping of everything to make a guest feel welcome, the priority of such welcome.
We get a glimpse of that same culture in the story from Genesis we heard in our first reading: the visit of three men to Abraham and Sarah. The visitors are never named as angels, messengers from God, but they have been widely understood in that way – Rublev, of course, took this story as the basis for his famous icon of the Trinity. God is glimpsed in these three visitors gathering around a table in a moment of shared hospitality and visitation. Certainly Abraham and Sarah understand these unknown visitors to be important, as they quickly prepare a feast and set it before them. These messengers of God are royally welcomed, and Abraham and Sarah’s reward is the promise of a son – even if, initially at least, Sarah, at her advanced age, finds such a promise somewhat laughable.
I mention the centrality of hospitality to our first reading, because it plays a role in our Gospel too. Here Jesus is welcomed in to a house – the home of Martha and Mary – and Martha, at least, is taking the duty and privilege of hospitality seriously.
Martha is busy preparing the dinner, making sure everyone is well looked after. She becomes understandably annoyed with her sister, who rather than sharing the load, simply sits at the feet of Jesus to listen. Many of us, when reading this story, feel that Martha has a point. Whilst we recognise the truth of Jesus’ words that Martha is worried and distracted by her many tasks – and we’ve all been there I suspect – well, the food is not going to cook itself is it? Is this not a typical religious move – privileging contemplation over action; sitting around over actually getting on and making a difference, making things happen.
If we read our gospel passage in isolation then taking the side of Martha is certainly an understandable reaction. But that is not the whole picture. Our reading follows straight on from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, itself preceded by the great commandment to love God and love neighbour. We heard all that last week. In the parable, Jesus answers the question, who is my neighbour, by holding up and commending the action of the Samaritan, the one who doesn’t stick to his allotted role, but responds in compassion to the need of another human, his neighbour, in front of him. The conventionally religious, the priest and Levite are condemned for not seeing, for being so wrapped up in the religious rights and wrongs, and their own standing, that they don’t recognise their neighbour. Action, responding in compassion to get things done, is here very much privileged over religious piety. It is in that context that we hear of Martha: like the Samaritan she is responding to the needs of others.
The difference is, I suspect, that Jesus reacts to the resentment in Martha’s tone and question: Martha is trying to recruit Jesus to take sides in her annoyance with her sister. That is something that Jesus refuses to do, instead he asks Martha a question about her commitments in the midst of this frenetic activity. What are her motives? Martha is being asked to bring her activism into dialogue with contemplation, so that each may feed the other. Just like the Samaritan, Martha is not expected by Jesus, to stick to an allotted, in this case archetypal feminine role – the care of the household. She is invited to bring that task and calling, to the feet of Jesus, to his words and practise of compassionate care. Jesus invites Martha to see herself not in competition with her sister, but to ask what enables the mutual flourishing of each.
We gather here, week by week, around a table, at the feet of Jesus, to listen and learn. If we think that we are here to recruit Jesus to help us with our projects, as an ally to command others to do what we think should be done, then we miss the point. We need to be directed toward Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet to listen. That is the necessary moment, as we receive Christ’s hospitality, his offering of himself. It isn’t a matter of being active or contemplative or prioritising one over the other; it’s a matter of being focused on Jesus without resentment because Jesus has no resentment.
And when we have gathered around Christ, so we will be sent out: ‘To go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.’ Our faith demands action, the generous hospitality and welcome shown to others. For loving God and loving neighbour are never separate but each feeds and needs the other. Amen.