“Lord do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work? …” (LK 10:40)
“Do not neglect to show hospitality” Hebrews 13:2
Thanks to Fr. Martin Elfert for the invitation.
I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Jerusalem and throughout the area of Palestine-Israel.
Today’s Gospel reading reflects a beautiful episode in the life of Jesus. He was visiting a home in a village. He was hosted by two women – Mary and Martha. Apparently, Jesus was a close friend of the family and the two sisters were very happy to see him. Mary was so excited she just wanted to sit at his feet and listen to his teaching. (This expression refers to a student who is eager to learn from his teacher.) Martha, on the other hand, was busy being a good hostess.
We are not told how many people were in Jesus’ company. We know that Jesus travelled with 12 disciples. In Luke 8:2-3, we read that there were others who travelled with Jesus including a few women. If all these came to the house of Mary and Martha, no wonder Martha was distracted and worried. If 16 people suddenly dropped in unannounced, wouldn’t you be worried? Hospitality was and is very important in our Palestinian and Middle Eastern culture.
Martha was overwhelmed with the preparations. She said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” The cultural implication is clear. It is important to begin with the expected hospitality and later to sit down and enjoy visiting with the guests.
I am reminded of my time as pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Shefa Amer, a small church close to Nazareth in Galilee. We had a number of older widows in our congregation. It was important to visit them individually in their homes on a regular basis. They will leave me in the living room and go to fix the coffee. I would beg them to leave the hospitality and to come and sit down. But hospitality was very important to them. I would have to wait for the coffee and the cake before I could leave. No matter what excuses I came up with, it was difficult to make the visit short. I tried to say, I don’t drink coffee and they would insist to make me hot tea. If I said, I don’t drink tea. They would insist to bring me fruits and cookies. Hospitality is deeply built in Palestinian culture.
When Jesus criticized Martha, “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things there is need for only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, (the better portion) which will not be taken away from her.” As if, Jesus was giving a contrast between two meals. Martha was preparing the physical food while he was giving Mary and his hearers the spiritual food.
I still remember when we were discussing this text after worship at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem during the coffee hour. Most of the women of the church took the side of Martha. Obviously, as in any other church, we had our Mary’s and our Martha’s. The Martha’s outnumbered the Mary’s. They felt that Jesus was harsh in his criticism of Martha. They felt that Martha was concerned about the right thing and Mary was at fault. Mary should have been helping her sister in preparing the hospitality first and later they can enjoy listening to Jesus. Hospitality is essential and comes first.
Interestingly, the story of the three visitors who came to Abraham is one of the most beautiful stories in the OT (Genesis 18). Abraham insisted on extending hospitality to them. He went and slaughtered a calf and prepared a meal for them; and then stood and waited on them (vs. 8). In some of our village communities, this custom still exists where the host, man or woman, will not eat with the guests but would stand and wait on them. [Incidentally, this story has been traditionally used as foreshadowing the doctrine of the Trinity.]
Be that as it may, there are references in both the Old & New Testament that express the importance of hospitality. In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” I believe these words are a direct reference to Abraham’s story in Genesis 18.
Paul writing to Timothy, places hospitality as one of the qualifications or even requirement of an elder or bishop, “a bishop must be above reproach, married…, temperate, sensible respectable, hospitable, and apt teacher…” In the Gospel of Matthew (25), the meaning of hospitality is expanded. When we feed the hungry, when we give a drink of water to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we clothe the naked, when we care for the sick, when we visit the prisoners, when we do all this in the name of Christ for the least of God’s children, the vulnerable and the outcast, it is as if we have done it to Christ himself.
This expanded understanding of hospitality allows us to consider the deeper and radical meaning of hospitality today. I believe that when we champion the victims of injustice and discrimination, we are engaging in hospitality. When we take a stand for people whose human rights have been denied or violated, we are engaged in acts of hospitality.
For me, I think of Palestine my home. I think of my people who long to see the end of the illegal occupation of Israel to Palestinian land. Most people want to see Israel live in peace; but they also want to see a Palestinian state established alongside Israel in accordance with United Nations’ resolutions; the very thing that Israel continues adamantly to reject. Our Palestinian people would like to see the United States take a courageous stand for the political and human rights of the Palestinians in accordance with international law. To do justice to the oppressed is the supreme act of hospitality. “If you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me,” said Christ.
Hospitality is about giving. True hospitality is rooted in God’s love for the world. God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus Christ. This is the great hospitality of God, the gift of Jesus Christ. The utmost expression of Christ’s hospitality has been the giving of himself for others. His death on the cross was an act of sacrificial love, an act of hospitality for the liberation and salvation of the world. He said “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Before such an amazing love, we must, in response, practice this kind of hospitality towards others. Such hospitality can be expressed in taking a stand on human rights for all. It can be expressed in helping change unjust systems and oppressive structures so that the poor and oppressed can be liberated and can enjoy a life of freedom and equality. This is active and radical hospitality.
I am sure you have heard the famous saying attributed to the Brazilian Catholic archbishop Dom Helder Kamara. He was one of the main inspirer of Latin American liberation theology. He used to say, “When I help the poor, they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” True and active hospitality demands of us to ask the deeper questions and to become part of the answer and the solution. We must not be satisfied with addressing the symptoms, but the root causes that ail our communities and our world.
At our baptism we were asked, “Will you strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being?” We answered, “I will with God’s help.”
Faithfulness to God demands of us to keep our baptismal covenant. Ultimately, the supreme act of hospitality is done when we champion the dignity and worth of every human being. Let us remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you do it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters you are doing it to me.
Canon Naim Ateek
Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Jerusalem