The Gospel reading today from Luke has long been contentious. The most troubling phrase is: “Mary has chosen the better part” (v.42). It sounds as if the practical concerns of her sister Martha, and the desire of Martha to seek the support of Mary, are rebuked by Jesus. It seems that Mary’s being and listening, has trumped Martha’s doing and caring.
The other concern is around Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to him. Some commentators wish to use this phrase to support the equality of women disciples. They would maintain that such a posture of sitting and listening is that of a disciple and that normally disciples of great teachers were male. Jesus, in this reading, would be defending the rights of Mary to be equally present with men and break free from stereotyped female roles.
Others point out however that in first century Hebrew culture it was not unusual for women to study Torah and, furthermore, Mary is portrayed as passively sitting and listening rather than engaging and proclaiming. In the Fourth Gospel Mary and Martha are portrayed much more positively: equals with each other, servers at the table, and preachers of the faith.
Luke tells us this is Martha’s household. She is the one running the place. She’s the one offering hospitality (v.38). This was very similar to, indeed may be a reflection of, the situation in the early church when believers met together in homes – there were no church buildings – and these homes often belonged to rich widows.
Hospitality was and is very important in Near Eastern culture. In our first reading today from Genesis 18, it was by offering hospitality to three strangers that Abraham encountered God.
When we offer hospitality we open ourselves to God. There are many religious stories about offering food and shelter to strangers and discovering that the stranger is an angel, or even Jesus, in disguise. Such stories are an admonishment to not judge others – by their familiarity or clothes or culture or habits. Such stories also remind us that the Divine can surprise us, being in our midst in a guise we don’t recognise.
It is important to note in Luke’s story however that it is not the offering of hospitality that is the problem but the manner in which Martha is doing it: she is fussing around. Luke uses three different words which depict her behaviour as being distracted, worrying and bothering. The criticism does not appear to be aimed at the practical roles which belong to being a good host, but the preoccupation with them. The fact that they are traditionally female roles may be irrelevant for the story.
The story is making a point about attitudes. It is when practical tasks assume dimensions which subvert best intentions. Being too worried about the arrangements may subvert the purpose of the visit. Martha, in her concern to feed and make everyone comfortable, might end up never hearing and engaging with Jesus.
“Today, the great enemies of universal hospitality,” writes the Benedictine monk Hugh Feissi , “are busyness, fear, and professionalism. If I don't have time to talk to the person calling for help, hospitality is out of the question. The advent of a guest, like the unanticipated needs of fellow monks, is a gauge of our use of time. If we have no time for the guest, our day is too full.”
The story of Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre, as I earlier indicated, is also about hospitality.
In the Garden of Eden, Genesis 1-3, God had walked with the first human beings calling out to them as a familiar friend. Since then, however, God had only made sporadic appearances. However, in Genesis chapter 18, the text says “The Lord appeared to Abraham... as he sat at the entrance of his tent.” Looking up Abraham saw three strange men approaching and immediately, despite the fierce sun in the middle of the day, ran out to greet them. In this episode we sense the warmth, eagerness, and energetic generosity of the man.
With typical Near Eastern courtesy Abraham would not allow the men to pass until he had given them all the refreshment and comfort in his power. All was haste, bustle and excitement as Abraham rushed to pour out his generosity at the feet of three total strangers, falling over himself to give them his best.
Yet in his world – as in our own – the stranger often represented a danger. Even today, we have to train children to be wary of strangers. Strangers are an unknown quantity. Abraham himself lived as a stranger in Canaan and recognized his marginal status there; a stranger had no tribe or kin to offer protection. However, here at the Oaks of Mamre Abraham was ready to bring three strange men into his family home and became the first human being to enjoy an intimacy – albeit a transient one – with the Divine since the expulsion from Eden.
This type of meeting with God – an epiphany if you like – was common in the pagan world, but later Israelites would deny that God could assume human form. This legend at Mamre derives from a time when the religion of the Israelites differed little from that of their pagan neighbours.
However the story was included in the Bible because it underlined a truth that would be of crucial importance in all three monotheistic traditions. Jews, Christians, and Muslims would all insist that practical charity to others was the most important religious virtue of all.
Christians would see the apparition of Mamre as an early manifestation of God as Trinity, a revelation which had come about as a result of Abraham’s eager yearning toward three fellow human beings. He bowed low before these three strangers, showing them the same reverence as to his God. As a result, says Karen Armstrong , God could sit and eat with Abraham as a friend.
Friendship demands a certain parity. God no longer wanted unthinking obedience from the people he had chosen. He decided to take Abraham into his confidence about his imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Unlike Noah, however, Abraham did not scuttle obediently to do God’s bidding but had the courage to argue with this frightening and notoriously unpredictable deity. Abraham begged God not to destroy the innocent along with the guilty. Again Abraham demonstrated his compassion, besides a concern for justice, pleading for the lives of total strangers in the condemned cities. Abraham had his faults, but he was capable of the selfless love for his fellow human beings that all the great world religions have shown to be the ultimate test of true spirituality.
So, to recap on Abraham: He extended hospitality to strangers, and in that encounter met God as a friend – the first human to do so since the Garden of Eden. That friendship with God led God to confide in Abraham, and Abraham in turn to lobby God to spare the lives of strangers [which God did]. There is a circulate pattern here. There is also the proclamation of a central theological truth: the way of hospitality and compassion, especially to strangers, is the way to God.
The Abraham story gives a helpful tablet on which to re-think the Martha and Mary story. Luke’s ‘Martha’ is a critique of anxiety, not a critique of the practical requirements of hospitality. Luke is though encouraging building friendship with God-known-in-Jesus. Friendships that in which we hope, like Abraham’s with God, both parties give and receive nurture and challenge.
 Hugh Feiss OSB Essential Monastic Wisdom: Writings on the Contemplative Life.
 Armstrong, K In the Beginning: a new reading of the Book of Genesis (1996)