St Aldhelm, Vulcan

Almighty God, your Son has opened for us a new and living way into your presence. Give us pure hearts and constant wills to worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Introduction

The 2002 Sir Winston Churchill biopic The Gathering Storm tells the story of the inter-war years of Winston Churchill as he struggles to regain status within his party. He has financial struggles, and for some reason one of my favourite parts of the film is when he complains to his wife Clementine that they have no Dundee cake. I always wondered what Dundee cake was, and later learned it was Churchill’s favourite fruit cake.

I found the recipe and made it. It was delicious. Now, the best part about it is that you add a splash of sherry or scotch to it after it’s been cooked, and that will let it keep in the refrigerator for months without spoiling. It allowed me to keep a little snack in the fridge at all times, something my grandmother had always taught me to do. “You must always have a cake and a pot of tea at the ready, in case someone should arrive unexpectedly at your door.”

Now, that’s lovely, but it begs an important question: what does this have to do with any of our Scripture readings today?

The Hospitality of Scripture

Hospitality was at the heart of my grandmother’s dictum: she felt it was important that when someone arrived at your home, treating them as an honoured guest meant always being able to offer them some tea and something sweet. Hospitality is central in both our Old Testament reading and our Gospel reading today.

This part of Genesis is often called “The Hospitality of Abraham” where Abraham sees three visitors on the road and offers them water and to sit and rest with him while food is prepared for them.

There is much more that can be said about this passage, but so far as hospitality is concerned, we can think of this as Abraham fulfilling part of the summary of the law, as we have heard it in our readings recently: loving your neighbour as yourself.

Our Gospel reading, however, provides a bit more food for thought on the topic of hospitality and may require a bit more exploration.

In our Gospel, we hear the story of the visit of Jesus to Mary and Martha of Bethany. These two women are infamous. You often hear talk of people describing themselves as Mary, just sitting at the feet of Jesus, or Martha, fussing about.

Social conventions in the time of Jesus are sometimes difficult for us to wrap our heads around, but they provide important information to help us understand Scriptural passages like this. For instance, Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning doesn’t seem too odd, but really, she was entirely defying social expectations by doing so. Women did not learn from the teacher directly, they might listen in from the other room, or be taught second hand by a male relative, but it was the men who sat at the teacher’s feet. Martha may have a bit of jealousy over her sister who is flaunting the conventions of society and failing to help her with all the work that needs to be done.

Imagining Martha

Picture yourself as Martha: you’re hosting an important rabbi and prophet at your home. You’ve been preparing for some time now, tidying things up, cleaning, and making other preparations, so the guest will feel he is respected. Your sister has helped you, but she has seemed a little pre-occupied throughout the day as you worked. Your guest and his entourage arrive, and you all greet them and offer them the hospitality of your home.

After initial greetings, the washing of feet and so on, are exchanged, the rabbi sits down and prepares to teach. Dutifully you return to the back room to fetch more food and drink for those who will be listening to him. You would like to hear what he has to say, but you know your brother Lazarus will fill you in later on what is said. It doesn’t take you long to realise your sister Mary has disappeared. You assume she has simply gone to the well to fetch more drinking water, but when you take some flatbread out to the room, you see your sister there, sitting at the feet of the Rabbi, learning with the men!

How could she ignore her responsibilities towards your guests? How could she pretend to be a man and sit at the Rabbi’s feet?! How could she abandon you?

You return to work and continue to serve the guests, offering them as much of your hospitality as you can, for it is only right to honour your guest this way. It is what Abraham did. It is what God calls you to do.

Every time you return to the front room to serve others, though, you see your sister, and it bothers you more and more. Why wont the master send her away, back to you to help?

Eventually, there is a pause in his discourse as you are in the room serving others, and you muster up the courage to ask a question: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”[1]

He replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need only of one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”[2]

Primary and Secondary Things

How do we understand that reply?  Is the rebuke of Martha a statement that she has been doing all the things that are unimportant, while what her sister has chosen is the only thing of importance?

Is it a rebuke of Martha for ignoring her master’s teaching? There is a sense in which there is a rebuke there, but the rebuke is aimed at her wish to have her sister stop learning from the feet of her Lord.

“Virtue,” says one Church Father, “does not have a single form.”[3]

Jesus is telling Martha that her busy devotion to her Lord is not more necessary and better than her sister’s pious attention to his teaching.

We are called to love our God and our neighbour. Both parts are needed, and that is the message from our Gospel today. Not that hospitality is wrong, but that there are multiple virtues, and there is one that goes before all: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, this is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Martha was hospitable, and by her addressing Jesus as Lord, it may even be that she had the right motivations; loving her neighbours for the sake of God, but it is never wrong for Mary to learn at the feet of Jesus.

We are called to be hospitable. Like Abraham, like Martha, and just like my grandmother said. But we are called to do so as a reflection of our love of God, a love which is only sustained when we piously devote ourselves to learning who God is.

It is a reminder that being a Christian isn’t first and foremost about being kind to others; it isn’t first and foremost about serving others; it is first and foremost about serving the Lord our God, and from that, loving and serving others.

Conclusion

Hospitality is important. It isn’t wrong. We should never view this passage as a condemnation of hospitality. Reading it alongside the Hospitality of Abraham is one way of making that clear.

Hospitality, however, cannot be for the sake of itself or societal expectations. Hospitality towards our neighbours must flow from our love of God, and our love of God comes from knowing him.

We are called to keep God central.

Love him first and foremost. Then we can truly love our neighbours, including through hospitality.

As Christians we must remember, we are called first to be hearers of the Word of God, and then doers of the Word of God.

[1] Luke x. 40

[2] Luke x. 41, 42

[3] S. Ambrose of Milan, Exposition on the Gospel of Luke, 7.85

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