Our first reading and our gospel today find resonance with the theme of hospitality. In the gospel, Jesus is enjoying the hospitality of his friends, Martha and Mary. In the first reading, Abraham shares hospitality at the place where he has set up his tent.
It is in the shade of the Oak tree of Mamre that Abraham has set up camp with his family and his flocks (Gen. 13:18). This is the place where he has erected an altar in gratitude to God for the gift of life and for the gift of land given to him by God. The odd interaction that unfolds is peculiar, in that Abraham begs a favor of the traveler… not the other way around. One would imagine that the stranger would ask a favor of water, or food, or even shade from Abraham. So there is a dynamic in play here that isn’t readily apparent to us as we listen to this passage.
Fresh from hosting my family who were visiting recently, I am mindful that when we show hospitality it can involve feeding people, entertaining them, and even sharing shelter with them, or hosting them. All of this was part and parcel of my family's recent visit. It can be demanding to share hospitality in our modern understanding of the word. Biblical hospitality is even more demanding still.
Biblical hospitality has its roots in God’s showing favor to his people. God’s hospitality to Abraham finds its fulfilment in God providing Abraham and his people with a home of their own, land for their flocks, and soil to bring forth abundant crops for their sustenance and support. Later, as we read in Exodus, God cared for the Hebrews in Egypt, bringing them from oppression and slavery into freedom. Because of the profound experience of the people at the hand of God, they understand that it is their responsibility to share God’s hospitality with others. Just as they were strangers in a strange land, biblical hospitality looks for a radical commitment to the stranger, to the other, to the foreigner, to those who are taken advantage of in our societies.
The English word “hospitality” doesn’t really communicate all of this. But the Greek word which is translated as hospitality, is “φιλόξενος” (philo-xenos). It literally means “love of the stranger” or “love of the immigrant.” For Abraham, to have the opportunity to share hospitality, to show “love for the stranger,” is an opportunity to demonstrate his love for God and to fulfill his responsibility as one loved by God. That’s why Abraham is so eager to beg this favor of the stranger, to be allowed to share hospitality. For Abraham, it is really an opportunity to show his tangible love for God. To turn away from the stranger, for Abraham, would be tantamount to turning away from God. To avoid any possibility of turning away from God, Abraham imposes on the stranger and really goes out of his way to look to his needs and to treat him almost better than he would treat his own family, offering an extravagant meal and sharing his company.
This highly nuanced reality is underpinning the gospel also, in which we find Martha and Mary extending hospitality to Jesus. The gospel, however, has an additional layer of complexity and it is a very radical one. We can read this gospel to be about two sisters, one of whom is complaining about the other’s lack of helpfulness. However, the “better part” that Mary has chosen isn’t just to spend time with Jesus. The gospel tells us that Mary “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” This is, in fact, the posture of a disciple! What makes it radical is that it was highly unusual for any woman to take this posture before a teacher, but Jesus affirms Mary in her choice to sit at the feet of a master and learn. In this simple gesture, Jesus is radically overturning a common cultural experience of his own time. Women were to be welcomed as disciples alongside men. While the culture and tradition would forbid Jesus from even speaking with women publicly, Jesus teaches them. In other parts of the gospel we see Jesus’ radical affirmation of equality between men and women in that women (Mary of Magdala, Joanna) are named as witnesses of the resurrection, and there were others too, who participated in and supported the ministry of Jesus.
So in this very short gospel, Jesus reveals that his convictions take him beyond the accepted culture of Palestinian Judaism of his time. Biblical hospitality and the treatment of women and men in society are values that are easily overlooked and rendered neutral in our modern reading of scripture. Our overlooking them, however, doesn’t remove our obligations to explore how we uphold our relationships with women and with strangers and/or immigrants in our own time “after the example of Jesus, and at his command.” Might our convictions about how we treat with strangers/immigrants, and with women, be called to go beyond our commonly acceptable cultural understandings, and what might that look like for us, as faithful disciples of Jesus?