The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

Pentecost IX:"getting it"

“S/he gets it.” This is a compliment. It is a descriptive phrase used to praise someone for having situational awareness, possessing perception and an understanding of the reality and truth of life as it emerges. There is a praiseworthy practical wisdom implied in the compliment. In today’s lessons, Abraham gets it, and Mary gets it. They see what’s happening, and “they get it.” We are less sure about Martha, or Abraham’s servant, or Sarah. 

Luke shows us two sisters who have invited Jesus under their roof. One sits at Jesus’ feet while the other tends to the procedural labors of hospitality. The vignette advances as one sister complains that she is getting no help from her sister. We hear a condescending, patronizing tone as Jesus responds, “"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." There, there dear...take a chill pill...Mary’s figured out what’s really important here, and you haven’ just go ahead and putter. 

​Thank you very much, Rabbi Jesus. Not helpful. Dismissing Martha is a pretty typical interpretation of Luke’s story of Mary and Martha. The classical take on this story has Jesus saying directly that listening to Him is more important than the labors of hospitality, and He protects the opportunity for the one who is ready to listen. That said, hospitality is perhaps Luke’s favorite context, and table fellowship is frequently where we discover Jesus in Luke’s Gospel . 

Genesis gives us the oaks at Mamre. Three strangers[1] appear at Abraham’s tent flap at lunchtime. It’s hot outside. Observing the canons of hospitality, Abraham arranged for their comfort, “and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.” 

Abraham has seen to their care by ordering that the servant and his wife work to prepare a meal of fresh bread, curds, milk and beef[2]. Once he ran to get the calf, the rest was up to Abraham’s servants, and Abraham stands by the visitors in the shade while they eat. As the conversation unfolds, Abraham is promised a son; standing within the tent flap overhearing this, Sarah laughs- perhaps in cynicism, perhaps in fear, probably a little of both. 

Mary and Abraham see the Holy One, and focus on Him. Sarah is skeptical, Martha whines, and they focus on themselves. 

It is neither justification nor a consolation prize to say that in both cases, the occasion for a deeper understanding of God was hospitality. A meal is described in Genesis and imminent in Luke, and there are inevitably those who labor to produce such meals. These disciples are important. It is facile to assume that producing the meal is unimportant; if it were unimportant, why would God consistently use table fellowship to reveal Himself? If producing table fellowship were unimportant why would Jesus have instituted The Holy Eucharist- a meal- as the place where He is Present? Hospitality- receiving the Holy One- is a fundamental part of each story, and dismissing those providing the features of that hospitality disrespects them and ill-serves God. 

So how do we understand these stories? By seeing the Holy One and inviting Him home. That’s essential. That makes hospitality inevitable, and for biblical hospitality to genuine, it must be authentically motivated and sacrificial in its largesse.  There is an investment of self in both the invitation and in the subsequent hospitality.  

The struggle is for sequence and balance. 

Hospitality emerges from invitation; that’s the sequence. Not the other way ‘round. To see Who/What is good and deserving of our attention is always the first move. That’s the Mary/Abraham move. Making a place, making a genuine welcome comes first. We know this is true: those dinner parties we host because social convention and work have demanded them are rarely very much fun; they are chores- elegantly executed and socially adept, but chores nonetheless. Such hospitality has the correct observable form, but little if any heart. 

Once the invitation is made, the hospitality, the servant/Sarah/Martha moves, emerge. It is a delight to prepare something wonderful for someone we love, admire, respect. People know when you’re trying to impress them, and they know when you love them. Using silver, crystal, china, linen of an ordinary Tuesday evening simply because you love who’s at the table is perfect, while butlered service and an immaculately laid table for obliged guests is merely nice if not pretentious. 

So it’s not either/or, it’s not a binary exclusive choice, it’s not Mary vs Martha, it’s not Abraham vs Sarah and servant. It’s both/and. If there is a problem with Martha and the servant and Sarah, it’s that they had not seen the wonderful opportunity as an opportunity...they didn’t get it. If there’s a problem with Mary and Abraham, it’s that they really do get it, and do not invest in the hospitality as an additional opportunity to extend self, stopping instead at full investment in the presence only. To be Mary and not Martha, or to be Martha and not Mary, is cheating…it’s letting ourselves off the hook from participating fully. 

Jesus Christ is hospitable in His Presence, and He is further hospitable in extending Himself to include His entire life. He is perhaps most hospitable when He accepts our hospitality. This is the pattern, however faltering we may be in pursuing it, that is our calling. 

Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 17 July 2016, being The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

[1] Our Orthodox cousins are much clearer about this moment than we are. They see The Trinity in these three visitors. They go so far as to write icons showing The Trinity appearing to Abraham. Abraham addresses them with a singular noun: "My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.” Three persons addressed as “My lord.” Then the mystery of The Trinity is acknowledged by the use of plural pronouns: “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on-- since you have come to your servant."  Hmmmm. I think our Orthodox cousins are onto something.


[2] A distinctly non-kosher meal served by our ancestor Abraham. Why would he do this? Because kosher hadn’t been invented yet. Abraham lives hundreds of years before Moses; it is through Moses that God gives The Ten Commandments and “the Law” deriving from them that forms observant Jewish custom and behavior.