Whenever we travel on vacation, we are dependent on the hospitality of others. We may have to pay for it, but the quality of their openness to us either enhances or detracts from our enjoyment. Through hospitality we are made to feel as if we are at home. And when we feel at home, we want to stay.
In cultures like that described in the first reading, hospitality was essential for survival. The host treated potential enemies as guests, thus neutralizing any threat; and the guest was dependent on the generosity of the host for necessary food, drink and shelter. Such hospitality was a temporary arrangement, but it assured everyone of safety.
There is something different about this story. The men who approach Abraham’s tent are not ordinary travelers. This section from a longer passage does not inform us who they were, but it does tell us that one of the men foretells the birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah. Who would have such knowledge? Surely someone acting as a messenger of God. The point of the story is captured in a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (Heb 13:1).
We find another example of hospitality in today’s Gospel story. Since Martha welcomed Jesus, she was probably the householder, responsible for showing hospitality—which she did. Mary, on the other hand, entertained the guest. But as we find so often in the teaching of Jesus, priorities seem to be turned upside down. Martha’s indignation is not simply a sign of peevishness. She is concerned with service. (The word used is diakonia, a word that had ministerial connotations in the early Christian community.) Jesus insists that there is something even more important than hospitality, or any other form of service. It is commitment to him. In no way does Jesus imply that diakonia is unimportant. It is good, but attending to him is “the better part.”
In the reading from Paul, we find what appears to be a completely different theme. Paul speaks of his willingness to suffer for the sake of others. He may not have opened his home to others, but he gave of himself.
What might these readings have to say to us who are not dependent upon hospitality for survival, or who might wonder why Mary’s attention to Jesus was chosen over Martha’s service? First, we are certainly called to be hospitable or open to others, not only with our homes or goods, but with our very persons. Second, this openness should spring from our commitment to Jesus. When we are committed to him, it will make little difference whether we suffer like Paul, or serve like Martha, or sit in rapt attention like Mary. We will be doing God’s will.