There is something charming about the account of Abraham serving the three men who suddenly appear at the oaks of Mamre. It is not simply that Abraham offers unbidden hospitality and service, or that they respond to his offer of food with a simple, “Do as you have said,” but that along with the water, bread, curds and milk he also proffers a tender, young calf to eat. The charm is not in the offer itself. Even a city boy knows that though Abraham has given the calf to his servant “who hastened to prepare it,” you cannot slaughter a calf and cook it in a few minutes. Real hospitality takes time. Perhaps in an ancient context, preparing bread from flour and butchering a cow to serve to your guests is the equivalent of a tray of crackers and cold cuts, yet I think we are intended to slow the narrative down and reflect on such involved preparation. Hospitality inherently calls for attention to one’s guests and offering them the best that one has to give. That cannot be rushed.
The ancient world in general revered hospitality; and the Israelites, because of their own sojourn in a foreign land and wandering in the desert, were called upon to show compassion and hospitality to strangers and to protect them from harm (Ex 23:9; Lv 19:33–34). Abraham’s hospitality, perhaps even beyond the call of ancient hospitality, leads to a blessing from the three men. The text presents these three as mysteriously related to God, whose will they seem to represent, but we also see in Abraham’s behavior the precursor to Jesus’ para ble of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, in which Jesus says that when caring for those in need—the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger—one is caring for Jesus himself. This links hospitality to the ultimate blessing.
The focus on hospitality never wavered among the Jewish people and continued with the rise of the church. Jesus receives hospitality from two of his friends, Martha and Mary; but as with many of Jesus’ encounters, his response to the hospitality his friends give him challenges us to expand our horizons.
Martha is the more active sister, inviting Jesus in and caring for his physical needs, but she “was distracted by her many tasks” and confronted Jesus, asking, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
Jesus acknowledges the goodness in Martha’s hospitality, but points to her sister Mary as the model of hospitality: “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
What is that better part? It is attention to the needs of the guest, the Lord himself, as Martha has identified Jesus, and that attention can take the form of physical hospitality. But more important, it is attention to whatever one’s guest needs. In this case, attention to Jesus, and not one’s own sense of being slighted by a sister who does not do her fair share of the work, is what truly matters. It is what Abraham offered by pouring out on his guests his undivided attention. Heb 13:2 says that by doing this, he “entertained angels without knowing it.” Yet here Martha has Jesus with her, and she is more concerned with her needs. If she would focus on Jesus, she would have all that she needs.
It is this subtle final insight, which Jesus offers to Martha, that is at the heart of an apparently unrelated passage in Colossians in which Paul rejoices “in my sufferings for your sake.” In this passage, Paul says he is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” The greatest hospitality Paul can offer, which any of us can offer, is to invite all to participate in the welcoming of Jesus as his servants, in order “to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” We do so, as Mary did, by focusing on the “better part,” Jesus himself, but serving the stranger, like Abraham, knowing that with the stranger is God.