The Welcome Guest
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) | Fr David Sanders tells us to be sure to take time to listen to our guests, especially the Divine Guest in whose company we eat at every Mass.
One in ten people worldwide work in the hospitality industry. We should not be surprised. After all it involves entertaining and providing food and drink for people in all its forms. When you consider the amount of space given on social media to food, recipes and cooking then you would expect scripture to have something to say about it. And it does.
God is very involved in this industry. In the old testament he is constantly feeding us, giving us manna, preparing a table for us now, and then planning a final banquet in heaven. And in St Luke’s Gospel Jesus is constantly having meals and feeding the hungry whether it is the 5000 or at a last supper for his disciples. At this final meal he shows us how to be hospitable – washing our feet in humble attentiveness and feeding us generously with his own body and blood. And he tells us to go on doing the same thing.
You might expect that if we have been made in the image of God we would share the same hospitality genes. We seem capable of receiving his bounty but less good when the tables are turned and we are asked to return his generosity and attentiveness.
We see this in today’s story of Mary and Martha. Many people immediately take Martha’s part and feel that Jesus rebuke of her is too hard. After all Martha is only following the example of her Jewish grandparents in the faith, Abraham and Sarah. We see this in the first reading as they perform the sacred duties which hospitality demands. Three visitors arrive at the Oak of Mamre and Abraham and Sarah, despite their advanced age and the noon-day heat, rush around serving their guests, washing their feet, baking bread and preparing the fatted calf.
And this is what Martha is like. She invites Jesus into her home, and then starts rushing around getting the dinner ready. Then she notices her sister Mary is just sitting at the Lord’s feet drinking up every word he speaks and not doing a hand’s turn to help. In fact Martha is so distracted that she interrupts her guest and tells him to talk to her sister, ‘’Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself?’ And then, even worse, she wants her guest to interfere in family matters and tell her sister Mary that she should help her.
It seems a reasonable request and one which thousands of hard-pressed Marthas in our own time sympathise with. But Jesus does not budge even in the face of these objections. Of course he recognises that you need people to work in the kitchen and get the meals ready. But Martha is worrying and fretting too much. She may have been a workaholic or a perfectionist who makes even the guests ill at ease with her virtuous industry. So Jesus reminds her of a basic law of hospitality. You should listen to the guest and put their needs first. If Abraham and Sarah had not stopped rushing around for a minute they would never have heard the wonderful news that their guests brought – that Sarah was to bear a son.
Even today guests can be overwhelmed by frenetic activity. The host, generous though he or she may be, will never calm down, shut up and listen to their guest. The meal can be more important than the visitor. Jesus says, despite what celebrity cooks may say, that one thing is necessary or that one course is sufficient. And Mary has chosen that. She has done the right thing as far as hospitality is concerned. She is giving her attention to her guest, listening to him and his needs. You don’t have to cook a fantastic meal if it means you do not have time to listen to your guest.
Are you a hospitable person? Do you welcome the stranger and share your bread and listen to what they say or are you wrapped up in your own concerns? But what is more important? How do you entertain Christ? He tells us that we do this when we receive strangers and St Benedict tells his monks they must receive guests as though they were receiving Christ.
But we also welcome him every Sunday in the Eucharist. We are invited to listen to his words in the Gospel and to receive his body and blood at the altar. Can we calm down, not be distracted for a while and give him a chance to speak to us in prayer? And then we will do the one thing necessary and treat him with genuine hospitality.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window in the Stanford Memorial Chapel in California.