16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
July 17, 2016
The gospel selection today is very simple and direct: Jesus chides his friend Martha for being so preoccupied with the details of hospitality that she ignores the one who is the recipient of her hospitality. Jesus' gentle reproof of Martha stands in contrast to his praise of Martha's sister Mary, who is portrayed as being wise on account of having chosen to listen to Jesus while he visited their home. If we take this passage together with the Old Testament reading from the book of Genesis we can find a deeper lesson about hospitality which can draw us into a closer relationship with Christ the Word among us as well as with our sisters and brothers who bear his presence to us.
Hospitality is not an end unto itself but is ultimately an expression of justice and righteousness, as the Psalmist says today when he describes the actions of welcoming and graciousness toward others that are natural for a God-fearing person and assures us that "He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord" (Ps 15:1a, 2a). Martha did not show this sort of attention to her guest but was caught up in the odds and ends of being a good hostess-she missed the forest because of all the trees. So too, Sarah did not show her mysterious guests proper respect since while she was busy helping Abraham provide for their unexpected visitors, who turned out to be divine messengers (Gen 18:6); she lost sight of the true aim of hospitality and mockingly laughed at them instead of respectfully hearing them out.
We understand this better if we continue to read in Genesis beyond the end of today's selection in the Lectionary; we find that in Gen 18:10-15 a strange conversation takes place involving God (one of the mysterious visitors who arrived at Abraham's tent), Abraham, and Sarah. Sarah laughs at her visitor-at God!-when she hears him predict she will have a son in her old age. The prediction came true, however, in the birth of Isaac, the heir to God's covenant with Abraham.
So many Christian and human virtues are like hospitality in that they are directed toward an end beyond themselves. Hospitality in particular is meant to see to a guest's immediate needs of course-to do otherwise would simply be boorish-yet it must go beyond that if it is to be Christian hospitality; it must extend us outward in a movement of justice and love toward the wayfarer who is in our midst and is in need of our help. Hospitality should lead us to a recognition of our guests and all those whom we encounter as being made in God's image and deserving of our sincere attention and aid, not to checking-off a rote laundry list of tasks to complete before the doorbell rings.
Abraham did this and was blessed by his visitors; Sarah faltered but later recovered and was blessed with the birth of a son, Isaac, who would become one of the great patriarchs of Israel. Mary understood the true purpose of hospitality, but Martha for her part was distracted by its many details and failed to pay attention to the living Word in her midst. She would later show that she had learned the value of justice and righteousness and charity toward others when she interceded with Jesus to restore her dead brother Lazarus to life (John 11:20-27).
As disciples of Jesus called to sit at his feet and listen carefully to his words, we do well to show hospitality to everyone we meet and host, preparing a worthy welcome for them and for the living presence of Christ whom they bear within themselves.