Two of the readings today (the eighth Sunday after Trinity) are about hospitality. The Old Testament reading is the story of Abraham welcoming the three strangers who come to him when he is encamped at the oaks of Mamre, and who tell him that Sarah, his wife, will bear a son. The New Testament lesson is the famous one of Jesus being welcomed into the home of Mary and Martha and then Martha getting very cross because she is doing all the work whilst her younger sister sits at Jesus’ feet.
Hospitality was very important in the world of the Middle East, not just for Jews and later, in the Christian tradition, but for all cultures. It might have had something to do with the distances people had to travel or, if you were someone like a Bedouin, how seldom you actually saw people other than your family.
In the story of Abraham and the three visitors, the feeling we receive from Abraham is almost one of entreaty. As soon as Abraham sees the men he runs to them (it was not dignified for an old man to run – and Abraham is old at this stage.) Abraham bows to the ground, which I presume means he gets on his knees and bends his forehead to touch the earth in front of them. He offers food and water modestly and humbly but the actual meal, which is produced with as much speed and care as possible, is as good and as generous a feast as could be created in the circumstances. And then Abraham stands by waiting on his guests whilst they eat. In all this Abraham is only doing what would have been expected in the culture of the time.
Fast forward to Mary and Martha and Martha’s frustration with Mary for not helping prepare the meal for Jesus. When the men came to Abraham it took Abraham, Sarah and a servant to produce the repast. Martha is not then being unfair when she wants one other person, her own sister, to help her and complains to Jesus. But very gently and compassionately (this is the meaning of Martha’s name being repeated twice by Jesus) Jesus tells Martha that “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Jesus is not telling Martha off. He is not trying to make her feel small. He is trying to open her eyes to a new way of looking that is a break with her cultural norms. In this case, Jesus is saying, in this one unique and particular case, Mary has chosen to do the right thing and that is to sit at the feet of Jesus, like a disciple, and lap up the food of everlasting life, the Word of God, the presence of the Christ.
This story reminds us that our actions need to flow from our interior relationship with God. It is extraordinarily important that we should practice hospitality but if we want to grow truly hospitable hearts they will need to be nourished beforehand by the hospitality God first showed us, in his gift of Jesus Christ. We need to feed on and be refreshed by his presence deep in our hearts. Then we will learn to look on all people, of all faiths and none, as precious, honoured and loved by God, and we will be able to welcome them in our hearts.