“Hospitality: A Scandalous Virtue”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”(NRSV)
The message of hospitality oozes from the pages of Luke’s gospel like salty moisture from a sea breeze. Just think about the expansive array of boundary-defying hospitality Jesus demonstrates: He breaks bread with tax collectors and other unsavory characters. He welcomes Gentiles and lepers. He feeds a community of five thousand with food for a family of five. He tells parables about forgiving fathers and wedding banquets open to impoverished strangers. He says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Lk. 6:27-28) And he embodies all of that by forgiving everyone who betrays and executes him.
Hospitality is more than “making nice.” Hospitality is holy water. It’s living water. It’s Sacrament. Hospitality is life itself, because it means sharing ourselves gratefully, generously, and fearlessly with others – especially, says Jesus, with the outsider and the outcast.
Immediately prior to today’s text, Jesus tells his unforgettable parable of the good Samaritan. The Church has tended to treat that story like a stuffed animal, something soft and cuddly. For Jews in 30AD, though, it’s an oxymoron and a scandal. In their minds, there is simply no such thing as a good Samaritan. Jesus crosses rivers and topples walls with this subversive parable.
After telling that story, he and his disciples enter an unnamed town where Martha welcomes them into her home. Then, like any good, first-century woman, she begins to prepare a meal for her guests.
The scene unfolds this way: At least thirteen men enter Martha’s home, at her invitation. They sit on the floor of the main room, likely the only room, and await Martha’s offering. The only other woman mentioned in the story is Mary, Martha’s sister. And Mary sits on the floor with the disciples. With the men! That’s not her place. In that culture, the limited and limiting role of women is to serve the men – with food and children. Because of that, women aren’t offered the privilege of education, and ignorance keeps them “in their place.”
Jesus doesn’t just permit a situation of revolutionary hospitality; he creates it. He encourages a woman, in a houseful of hungry men, to sit with those men, to think and to learn right alongside them, leaving the only other woman present to feed all fifteen people by herself. And while it would have made his disciples uncomfortable, it infuriates Martha. She complains to Jesus, pleads with him to tell Mary to get back where she belongs.
In The Message, Eugene Peterson renders Jesus’ response to Martha this way: “Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.”
That’s not the response Martha expects, and certainly not what she wants to hear. She wants Jesus to shame Mary back into her place. And all Martha gets is a cryptic summons to seek the one and only essential thing…which is…
This is the point where the sheep in the dusty pen crowd around the trough expecting the shepherd to set the hay down right where they can get it. But do we even have to wonder what the one and only essential thing is?
The reason Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan is because a teacher of the law asks him what works he must perform to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers by asking, What does scripture say? And the man quotes the Shema: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
There you go, says Jesus.
When Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself, he’s saying to look for and to see yourself in others the way God sees you. Care for your neighbor with all the energy, compassion, and grace of God. Offer to everyone the hospitality that would make you feel truly welcomed, valued, safe, and beloved.
In Martha’s home, Mary is receiving from Jesus that kind of hospitality. And it’s not just a wonder to behold; it’s a disrupting scandal. But Jesus sees Mary through his own eyes. He sees himself in her, so, to love her is to love himself, and to love God more fully. And Mary, seeing herself through Jesus’ eyes, embraces Jesus before her and the Christ within her. She remains at Jesus’ feet, sharing in his love as one whose sole purpose in life is to love and to be loved.
Isn’t that the one and only essential thing?
Isn’t that the “main course” around the table?
Our son, Ben, was born in a birthing center in the small town of Rincon, GA, just north of Savannah. The night of Ben’s birth was the night Hurricane Hugo hit the southern Atlantic coast. The brunt of the storm hit Charleston, SC, but even in Rincon, rain came down in sheets. The wind shook the limbs of the live oaks like a cheerleader shaking pompoms. The storm surge overwhelmed drainage systems and flipped manhole covers like bottle caps. While I was fully and anxiously alert through all of that, Marianne was in her own parallel universe of childbirth. When the storm ended, parenthood had begun.
The midwife let us stay the whole night because of the storm. After Ben was safely with us, I lay down on the bed and slept as soundly as I had ever slept. Marianne stayed awake the entire night, staring at the tiny human being to whom she had given birth, basking not only in his presence, but a kind of love she had, to that point, never experienced.
My dad called that holy staring back and forth between mother and child the “primary relationship,” and it is essential for a newborn’s development. Some call it “the mirroring gaze”1 and apply it to a person sitting with God in silent, contemplative prayer.
Sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary is caught up in “the mirroring gaze.” Jesus lives that kind of deep-sighted hospitality, and it’s scandalous because he leaves no one out of the intimacy he enjoys with God, whom he calls, “Abba,” the Aramaic equivalent of daddy. Imagine how much Jesus must want Martha to want to join them in the “gaze” of hospitality.
Nations, and other communities unbound to grace may claim exemption from showing hospitality. For Jesus-followers, though, that scandalous virtue is nothing short of sacrament. Indeed, it is the reason we practice open communion, welcoming – without prejudice – all who are present to the Lord’s table, and into “primary relationship” with him, thus deepening everyone’s practice of “the mirroring gaze.”
Being somewhat scandal-averse in an apprehensive world, I’m often tentative when faced with an opportunity to proclaim Jesus’ love. And while I lament my lack of courage, I do trust this to be our essential truth:
To share hospitality as scandalously as Jesus does is to love him, and to love God.
We experience relationship with God by loving each other as Jesus loves us.
And through this holy love, we inhabit, here and now, the kingdom of God – the gift “which will not be taken away from [us].”
Charge/Benediction:Richard Rohr writes: “Christ is the light that allows people to see things in their fullness. The precise and intended effect of such a light is to see Christ everywhere else. In fact, that is my only definition of a true Christian. A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reasons to fight, exclude, or reject anyone.”2