21 July 2019

When good hospitality is
more than the food we serve
and talk around the table

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Diego Velázquez (1618)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday, 21 July 2019,

The Fifth Sunday after Trinity

9.30: Morning Prayer, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton

Readings: Amos 8: 1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1: 15-28; Luke 10: 38-42.

‘I am like a spreading olive tree in the house of God’ (Psalm 52: 8) … a grove of olive trees in Loutra in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

In our Gospel readings over these past few weeks, we are reading how Saint Luke emphasises that Christ came for all: all sectors of society, all peoples, regardless of gender.

In these few weeks, we have read how:

● Samaritans are welcome in the Kingdom of God.

● Christ tells the Seventy that proclaiming his message demands unswerving commitment.

● The lawyer has learnt that his love should be for everyone; if it is, he has eternal life.

Now, in this morning’s reading (Luke 10: 38-42), Christ crosses more cultural boundaries:

● He is alone with women who are not his relatives.

● A woman serves him.

● He teaches a woman in her own house.

In that culture and in those days, to sit at someone’s feet is to be his disciple. Mary is Christ’s disciple, while Martha, who is devoted to her home, is distracted and busy. The only thing that is really needed is to listen to Christ’s message and to proclaim it. This is the task that Mary has chosen, and her role is exemplary. Of course, Christ affirms Martha’s role, but Mary’s is better.

This Gospel reading is well-known, but it also puzzles many of us. It reminds me that if Mary and Martha are role are models for how to be welcoming in the Church, then being is as important as is doing.

Saint Luke’s story of the meal that Christ has with his friends Mary and Martha is not found in the other synoptic gospels, Saint Matthew and Saint Mark, and the only other parallel is in Saint John’s Gospel, where Christ visits Mary and Martha after the death of Lazarus. So, the meals Christ has with Mary and Martha may also be read in the light of the Resurrection, which is prefigured by the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

For many women – and for many men too – this story of the meal with Martha and Mary raises many problems, often created by the agenda with which we now approach this story, but an agenda that may not have been possible to imagine when Saint Luke’s Gospel was written.

Our approach to understanding and explaining this meal very often depends on the way in which we understand Martha and her busy round of activities which have her distracted, and which cause her to complain to Christ her guest about her sister’s apparent lack of zeal and activity.

These activities in the original Greek text of this Gospel are described as Martha’s service – she is the deacon at the table: where our translation this morning says, ‘But Martha was distracted by her many tasks,’ the original Greek text says: ‘But Martha was being distracted by much diaconal work, service at the table’ (ἡ δὲ Μάρθα περιεσπᾶτο περὶ πολλὴν διακονίαν). We might say, she was getting on with things.

Earlier, in the Epistle reading, Saint Paul also uses the same word (διάκονος, diakonos, deacon) twice to describe his work as a servant or minister of the Gospel (see Colossians 1: 23, 25). Martha too is a Paul-like figure in her ministry and service.

Quite often, when this story is told, over and over, again and again, it is told as if Martha is getting stroppy about having to empty the dishwasher while Mary is lazing, sitting around, chattering with Jesus.

Does Martha see that Mary should only engage in kitchen work too?

Does she think, perhaps, that only Lazarus should be out at the front of the house, keeping Jesus engaged in lads’ banter about the latest match between Bethany United and Jerusalem City?

Is Jesus being too dismissive of Martha’s complaints?

Or is he defending Mary’s right to engage in a full discussion of the Word, to engage in an alive ministry of the Word?

Martha is presented in this story as the dominant, leading figure. It is she who takes the initiative and who welcomes Christ into her home (verse 38). It is she who offers the hospitality, she who is the host at the meal, she who is the head of the household – in fact, Lazarus is not even on the stage for this scene, and Mary is merely ‘her sister’ – very much the junior partner in the household.

Yet it is Mary, the figure on the margins, who offers the sort of hospitality that Jesus commends and praises.

Mary simply listens to Jesus, sitting at his feet, like a student would sit at the feet of a great rabbi or teacher, waiting and willing to learn what is being taught.

Martha is upset about this, and she comes out from the back and asks Jesus to pack off Mary to the kitchen where she can help Martha.

But perhaps Martha was being too busy with her household tasks.

I was once invited to dinner by people I knew as good friends. And for a long time I was left on my own with the other guest as the couple busied themselves with things in the kitchen – they had decided to do the washing up before bringing out the coffee … the wife knew that if she left the washing up until later, the husband would shirk his share of the task.

But being left on our own was a little embarrassing. Part of the joy of being invited to someone’s home for dinner is the conversation around the table.

When I have been on retreats, at times, in both Greek Orthodox and Benedictine monasteries, conversation at the table has been discouraged by a monk reading, usually from the writings of the Early Fathers, from the Patristic writings.

But a good meal, good table fellowship, good hospitality, is not just about the food that is served, but about the conversation around the table too.

One commentator suggests that Martha has gone overboard in her duties of hospitality. She has spent too much time preparing the food, and has failed to pay real attention to her guest.

On the other hand, Mary has chosen her activity (verse 42). It does not just happen by accident. Mary has chosen to offer Jesus the real hospitality that a guest should be offered. She talks to Jesus, and real conversation is about both talking and listening.

If she is sent back into the kitchen, then – in the absence of Lazarus, indeed, in the notable absence of the disciples – Jesus would be left without hospitality, without words of welcome, without conversation.

Perhaps Martha might have been better off if she had a more simple lifestyle, if she had prepared just one dish for her guest and for her family – might I venture to say, if she had been content for them to sup on bread and wine alone.

She could have joined Mary in her hospitality, in welcoming Jesus to their home and to their table.

In this way, Martha will experience what her sister is experiencing, but which she is too busy to notice – their visitor’s invitation into the hospitality of God.

One commentator, Brendan Byrne, points out the subtle point being made in this story:

‘Frenetic service, even service of the Lord, can be a deceptive distraction from what the Lord really wants. Luke has already warned that the grasp of the word can be choked by the cares and worries of life … Here the cares and worries seem well justified – are they not in the service of the Lord? But precisely therein lies the power of the temptation, the great deceit. True hospitality – even that given directly to the Lord – attends to what the guest really wants.’

What sort of hospitality do we offer our guests?

Do we offer them just food? Or do we also offer them our company, our presence?

Now, translate those questions to the Church?

Or we just interested in maintaining the way we do things, the furniture and fittings?

Or are we flexible enough to offer true places of welcome … where we use our time and space not merely for our own comforts, not just so that they feel welcome, but so they have a real encounter with the Living God?

The Prophet Amos is concerned for the oppressed (Amos 8: 1-12). He realises that true religion is not only about what we believe but how we show it in action, particularly in how we deal with the poor and treat the oppressed.

Saint Paul reminds us in our Epistle reading (Colossians 1: 15-28) that Christ is the ‘image (icon) of the invisible God … in him all things in heaven and on earth were created’ (Colossians 1: 15-16).

If people are going to find Christ, the image of God, in our churches, then they find him in our gathering around the sacraments and the word, but also in the hospitality and welcome we offer them, and the time and space we offer them.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘He is the image (icon) of the invisible God … in him all things in heaven and on earth were created’ (Colossians 1: 15-16) … Christ Pantocrator depicted in the dome of the Church of Aghios Georgios in Panormos, near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Luke 10: 38-42 (NRSVA):

38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But 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.’ 41 But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

‘Christ at the home of Martha and Mary,’ Georg Friedrich Stettner (1639)

Liturgical colour: Green

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
Hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

‘The Lord God showed me a basket of summer fruit’ (Amos 8: 1) … summer cherries and summer fruits on sale in Amalfi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

421, I come with joy, a child of God (CD 25)
103, O Christ the same, through all our story’s pages (CD 7)
596, Seek ye first the kingdom of God (CD 34)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

‘He is image (icon) of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1: 15-16) … icons of Christ in a shop window in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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