It isn’t difficult to see the connection between today’s first Mass reading, about Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18.1-10), and the gospel, about Martha and Mary and the supper they gave Jesus (Luke 10.38-42). Hospitality, we say enthusiastically: it is all about welcoming the stranger and the different ways in which we welcome God into our lives. Well, yes, it is; but both readings present us with some difficulties which remind us that it is more than that.
Genesis’s account of Abraham welcoming angels unawares and ending up with the gift of a son, through whom God’s promises will be realised, may read a little strangely to us, but it is a warm and reassuring kind of strangeness. We can take away from it nothing more demanding than the idea that if we are nice to others, we shall be blessed. We can conveniently forget the terrifying aspect of angels in the Old Testament or the strict rules about hospitality among nomadic peoples and the demands they made on both individual and tribe. The way in which the text, even in translation, switches from plural to singular and back again may alert us to an underlying complexity; but we do not have to engage with it, if we do not want to. Abraham is hospitable. That is all we have to take to heart, isn’t it?
The same is not true of the Martha and Mary story. It has often been used to exalt contemplation over action, with an awkward nod in the direction of admitting that Martha and Mary are sisters, so consequently both prayer and action are necessary in the Christian life — which is true, but tends to make the preacher’s homily end a little lamely. Occasionally, a few historical details are thrown into the mix which hint at something more going on than a sisterly dispute about who does what. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. That is the attitude of the rabbi’s disciple, from which she, as a woman, is culturally excluded, as well as that of the hesychast. Then there is the ambiguity of where all this takes place. We assume it is at Bethany in Judah, where Martha had her home, but Luke situates this story in the midst of a series of passages connected with Samaria. Is this about hospitality in the land of outcasts? Are Martha and Mary accompanying Jesus on his journeying and going ahead to prepare a meal? Suddenly, this familiar passage begins to look unfamiliar, transgressing boundaries, making us think anew about what it means to be a disciple, our conventional roles, and the expectations we have of others.
One thing I think we can all take from this, even if we want to go on reading the texts at a simple level, is the need to be welcoming whatever our circumstances. Most of us tend to be hospitable at home, where we can decide the level of welcome we will extend to others, the amount of time we will give, the food and drink we will set before them. It is, if we are honest, the hospitality of those who are in control. But I think that, as Christians, we are called upon to exercise the hospitality of those who are not in control, those who receive rather than bestow grace and are often stretched further than they would like — the hospitality of the nomad suddenly confronted with hungry strangers whom he must feed, no matter how slim his resources, the hospitality of women making the best shift they can in unfamiliar territory, the hospitality of the Benedictine who must see each guest as Christ. Hospitality on the way is less about giving, more about sharing. It topples us from the familar position of host or hostess, but it grants us a place at the table; and who could ask more than that?