Readings for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Scripture passages for today’s Sunday Mass feature two well-known passages, both of which concern extending hospitality to the LORD. In the first reading from Genesis 18, we hear of the LORD appearing to Abraham in the form of three men. It’s hard to imagine a more enthusiastic host than Abraham. He is described as running to meet them, then hastening to prepare a generous meal for his guests. He wants them to have the best and is eager to give them all the attention he can. In fact, when the food is ready, Abraham himself waits on his guests.
The gospel passage for today is an interesting complement to this story. In the gospel of Luke, we hear the famous story of the sisters Martha and Mary. This passage is often used to exalt the contemplative life, seeing Martha and her burden of serving in a negative light. However, such a perspective is a bit limited and can even be unhelpful. Like Abraham, Martha is eager to serve the LORD. The first point the passage mentions is that Jesus entered a village and Martha welcomed him. Surely Martha’s attention to Jesus bears similarity to Abraham’s attention to his visitors; preparing a generous meal takes time, consideration, and effort. Moreover, this passage highlights Martha’s familiarity with Jesus. She actually complains to him about her sister! Those of us who host guests know how atypical it would be to complain to an unfamiliar guest about a family member…such a criticism wouldn’t make a good impression on a guest.
Thus Martha’s willingness to address Jesus asking for support in this way shows that she knows and trusts him, perhaps even considers him to be like family. Jesus’s direct response to her likewise shows a familiarity, which we might expect from the LORD who knows and loves each person individually, including Martha. What we find in Jesus’s comment that Mary has chosen the better part indicates the truly radical part of hospitality, which we often forget.
Ultimately, hospitality is the act of receiving. We even use the language of “receiving a visit” or “receiving a guest.” Of course, there is necessary action on the part of those receiving guests. We see Abraham’s quick and thoughtful preparations, as well as Martha’s welcome to Jesus including serving. But radical hospitality isn’t ultimately about how our food is tasty, how our house is spotless, how impressive our family members are, or how much work we put into hosting guests. Real hospitality, rather, recognizes that the purpose of all these preparations is to help us receive the gift of those who visit.
Although it isn’t in today’s passage, Abraham received something remarkable as a result of the LORD’s visit, namely, his son Isaac. Mary’s disposition to sit and listen was itself an act of hospitality; she too showed eagerness and attention to the LORD. Mary was ready to receive Jesus.
When it comes to practicing hospitality in our own homes, we will necessarily need to have the care and effort of Abraham and Martha. We will also need to have the disposition of Mary, knowing that our guest’s presence is itself a gift that we receive. It is also helpful to use these passages in thinking about how we receive Jesus in the Eucharist. Of course, we want to live careful and thoughtful lives, where we eagerly hasten to do God’s will, ready to receive the LORD at any moment he might appear by our door. Yet it is good to take care that this work of preparation doesn’t become primarily about us and what amazing hosts or Christians we are becoming. Our own work in developing virtue and living morally doesn’t earn us the Eucharist, and it should not detract from our ability to receive Jesus. We can’t be the Pelagians trying to do the faith ourselves.
We will find ourselves dissatisfied, like Martha, if our focus is on our own work and effort compared to others. Thus we may find comfort in Jesus’s words; we need not be anxious and worried, should not drown in scrupulosity about our own performance. Radical hospitality, rather, involves humility. It requires us to sit quietly and listen, and to receive the LORD’s presence as a gift. Indeed, Mary has chosen the better part, and Jesus desires all of us – Mary, Martha, you, and me – to choose this part… and then this gift will not be taken from us.