Today’s Gospel excerpt contains so much wisdom and real life: Martha and Mary are sisters, two good Jewish women, both of them close friends of Jesus. Anticipating his very welcome visit, they had been busy for hours, if not days, preparing for his arrival. When he got there, Mary sensed that his desire was not merely to eat & drink and converse and laugh with them, which he most certainly loved to do, but rather to teach them more about God and truly human life. Martha, with her eye on the roasting lamb, the vegetables, the wine and the desserts, missed the point and could not understand why her sister was abandoning her in the kitchen, indulging herself in the frivolous act of conversation with Jesus, something that was the prerogative and privilege of men, not women, anyway. Jesus did not avoid the issue. He said to Martha, risking offending her, Martha, you’re worried about getting a meal on the table, but what you don’t see is that there is only one thing that is really important. Your sister understands that; she has chosen the better thing to do, and it wouldn’t be right for me to stop her.
One scripture commentator explains that what Jesus was saying was, I came into your home, Martha, not chiefly to eat but to feed you by my teachings. Of the two of you, Mary is actually the better host because she is doing what all of my followers should do: she’s listening to my words.
Hospitality was a virtue and a social phenomenon very important to Jesus. But hospitality can be misunderstood. The way we give to others has to take into serious consideration how the receiver feels about what is being given. For example, one person’s sole need and desire may be for food and drink and pleasant chatter; and genuine hospitality would provide exactly that. Someone else has the need to talk and to express the thoughts of his or her heart and to unburden self of a problem that has been kept closed up and festering. Yet another is looking for advice or consolation or confirmation and needs to hear compassionate, heartfelt words of acceptance and understanding.
Many times in my life I have been in the company of persons who needed to be heard, no matter what I was prepared and eager to offer. I recall one such occasion some years ago when I knew that my role was to be quiet and listen patiently to the long tale of family issues that my table guest was pouring out non-stop. I was looking for a break in his desperate monologue so that I could interject something I thought might be of help to him. I remember mentally absenting myself from the situation for just a few seconds and inviting the Spirit of Wisdom to be the director and the go-between. The response I got was simply to keep listening attentively and respectfully.
And suddenly, in a brief pause, I said to my guest, “You know, you remind me of Mary, Jesus’ mother. She stood by her son and watched every step of his painful execution, knowing that he was completely innocent, knowing that he was the very love of God made human among us. And she could do nothing, absolutely nothing, to help him or to save him.” I said that somehow that terrible ordeal of theirs resolved itself, not only positively, but powerfully, becoming a source of life and peace for everyone. I added that he was following in Mary’s footsteps and that he would have to be confident that the good and loving and right thing would win out in the end.
Hospitality is like selecting and giving a gift: we don’t give what we like; we give what we think the other person would like. Granted: that’s a lot easier to do when it’s a tie or a shirt or a piece of jewelry in question; a lot harder to do when the gift is unselfish, compassionate, patient, sensitive interaction with the other person.