A beloved story that appears only in the Gospel of Luke is that of Jesus visiting his friends Martha and Mary at their home in Bethany (10: 38-42). Many have interpreted this narrative as dealing with the active life versus the contemplative life; however, I will consider it through a cultural lens with a focus on hospitality, an essential component of discipleship.
Hospitality is an attitude of the heart. It is making room for others in our heart and is exhibited outwardly through our actions. Even a sincere smile can be an expression of hospitality. In biblical times, hospitality was highly regarded, so there are many stories in the Bible that highlight hospitality as being congruent with being a person of genuine faith.
In Genesis 18:1-10, Abraham shows a generous amount of hospitality to three strangers who seem to have appeared out of nowhere. Abraham, being a wealthy man, could have greeted them kindly and then summoned his servants to tend to the unannounced visitors. But as a true disciple of God, he oversaw and engaged in the service of hospitality himself. And little did Abraham know at the time that he was “entertaining angels.” [We read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Do not neglect hospitality for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (13:2).]
For St. Benedict and his followers, hospitality was and is very important. We are to treat invited guests and those unexpected individuals who come knocking at the door with compassion and concern–in other words, with an open hospitable heart. All who present themselves are to be treated as Christ (RB 53.1)
What if Jesus, the Christ, is your guest? Would you greet him at the door with a welcoming smile, offer food and drink, be attentive to his needs, listen and reflect on his words?
Both Martha and Mary welcome Jesus, their friend, with a welcoming heart. Martha is in the kitchen preparing the food for the dinner, setting the table, tending to his physical needs. Mary is listening attentively to Jesus reflecting on his words of wisdom. Maybe she asks him questions about the meaning of his teachings and stories.
Isn’t this what we do when we have guests? Someone is preparing or has prepared the food, setting the table, asking what the guest would like to drink. Other members of the household and the guests are conversing and listening to one another.
As often happens in our own homes, discord happens. Dissension arises between Martha and Mary. Martha is upset that Mary is not helping in the kitchen but is alone with Jesus in the living room. It is important to note that their time and culture women were forbidden to be alone with an adult male other than her husband.
Is Martha upset that Mary is not helping with the preparations of the meal, or is it something else? Maybe, she is distraught with her sister because a social protocol is being violated. Not only is Mary alone with Jesus, but she also is sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to the Teacher.
So what is the big deal? Jesus overturns social customs by allowing Mary to seat at his feet, which was the position of male disciples learning from their teacher. In those days males were forbidden to teach scripture to a woman. The rabbis wrote, “It is better for the Torah to fall into fire than to fall into the hands of a woman.”
“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Mary has committed a “no-no,” and perhaps Martha is attempting to rectify the situation. Jesus’ reply to Martha is that she is “anxious and troubled about many things. Mary has chosen the good portion,” (Greek translation).
Jesus is not telling Martha to forget about her hospitality of service. Could it be that he is expressing to her not to worry about the breach in social convention? To sit at his feet and listen to his teaching is one form of hospitality and that discipleship is all-inclusive–both for male and female disciples.
Is the evangelist Luke conveying to us that there should be no obstacles preventing one access to Jesus?
Both Martha and Mary are practicing hospitality and discipleship. Martha not only provides a welcoming environment, but also provides for his physical needs for food and drink; Mary is listening and reflecting on his teachings. These sisters are responding to the call of discipleship each in her own way.
How can both Martha and Mary be models for discipleship in your life?
By Sister Marie Leonard, OSB