Jesus came to a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who sat down at the Lord’s feet and listened to him speaking. Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered: ‘Martha, Martha,’ he said, ‘you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.’
This brief encounter illuminates the notions of hospitality and discipleship. In the letter to the Hebrews we read “do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:2). Perhaps it was because of the many things that worried and distracted her that Martha was unable to recognise the true identity of Jesus. Whilst not being unwelcoming, Martha is preoccupied with the preparation of the meal and its serving, and as a result she inadvertently ignores her guest.
Frustrated and perhaps overwhelmed by all that she must do, Martha implores Jesus to have Mary help her. Much to her surprise Jesus gives a mild rebuke to Martha, not on account of her cooking but on her distractedness and her willingness to leave Jesus alone, despite him being a guest. Jesus identifies that there is only one correct expression of hospitality in the circumstances, and Mary has done this, to train our full and complete attention on him. Mary is not an example of passivity, but rather receptivity and contemplation. Jesus would not have been whispering to Mary and perhaps Martha could well have reflected on the words herself had she not fretted on so many other incidentals.
The contrasting actions of Martha and Mary reinforce the way in which hospitality is depicted in Genesis 18. Abraham takes the time not just to meet the physical needs of his visitors but also to talk with them and listen to them. It is the image of Abraham that has shaped the understanding of hospitality in the Middle East, both now and during the time of Jesus. Meeting the physical needs of our guests must be complemented by our attentiveness to their conversation. Hospitality must never be seen as a chore, for if it is we will never welcome the stranger.
Importantly, we must never be distracted in our welcome to Jesus in our lives, but rather, like Mary, be attentive to and nourished by his word.