In the liturgy today are two stories on ‘hospitality’, each making a different point. Abraham see three strangers approaching and welcomes them lavishly, and is rewarded with good news. In the second, we see the importance of Jesus’ teaching, and the right way to react to it.
In the harsh desert land, welcoming travellers is an important duty, still practiced today among nomads. In this story, however, Abraham goes beyond the necessary food and drink offered – his provisions are suitable for a feast. (Compare the ‘fatted calf’ in the story of the Prodigal Son’s welcome home by his father.)
It is the hottest time of the day. Abraham is in a shady area when he sees three figures approaching through the heat and assumes they are need of some help. This selection may be combining several old traditions, as there is some confusion between God and the three ‘men’. They are like angels who sometimes in Bible stories mean ‘messengers’ or God taking a human appearance. Here we are alerted before the story starts that it is the ‘LORD’. When Abraham opens the conversation with ‘My lord’ this is a different word in the Hebrew and used as an honorific title rather than recognizing the visitors as God. It is not clear in the reading at which point he does know they are more than human, possibly not after their prediction.
To understand the impact of ‘your wife will have a son’, one needs to know that Sarah was post-menopausal and without God’s intervention could not have conceived a child. This is made clear in the verses following our selection when Sarah overhears the prediction and laughs, sure it is impossible for her to be pregnant. This promised son is Isaac and his son is Jacob-Israel from these, the Hebrews will trace their identity. These ‘Patriarchs’ are ancestors of Jesus and therefore one of the ways Christians see our connection to God’s original people.
This psalm may have been used when going up to the Temple (‘your holy mountain’) to worship. It has a short summary of the Law on dealing with others: one cannot worship God faithfully while acting unjustly or cruelly to the people met with daily. Although Abraham lived before the Law and the Temple, he is shown acting with a similar righteousness.
The writer of this Letter continues to stress that it is through Christ that we have our revelation, in contrast to the mistaken belief at Colossae that there were other, perhaps angelic, sources giving them ‘knowledge’. The reading opens with the idea of ‘making up what was lacking’ or ‘still to be done’ for the sake of the church as the body of Christ. It does not mean that he thinks Christ’s self-offering through his death and resurrection is not enough, for he stressed in the passage we heard last week, ‘that all things are reconciled’ through Jesus. The Greek text here uses a word for ‘sufferings’ or ‘hardships’ that is never used for the passion of Jesus, but often for what the disciples and ministers will encounter in living as Christians. It is this form of suffering Paul has found in his preaching and teaching, but is happy with that as he sees it as something he can offer for the Colossians. The idea that we can ‘offer up’ our pains, problems and hardships for others has become a familiar spirituality for Catholics. It is a reminder that God is with us and we are with God in everything we do. As Christians, everything we do relates to other people. Our problems and sufferings are no exception.
This short selection is only in Luke. With a brief line to remind us of the setting of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, Luke plunges in a bare-bones account, with no extra details of the place or people – such who else was there. Martha who offers the hospitality is probably the older sister and head of their household. Like many a hostess – and indeed like Abraham – she wants to provide something special for this distinguished guest, but has tried to do too much. She may also have the added challenge of feeding other disciples who are also listening to Jesus. She is annoyed with her sister for not ‘doing her part’ in the preparation and asks Jesus to order her to help. His reply is gentle but firm, and saying her name twice suggests compassion.
In these notes rarely is there a need for ‘textual criticism’ – looking at slightly different readings in the many manuscripts that go into selecting the text for our translations. But in this case, it can help interpret what Jesus says to Martha. The written sources are divided between 3 versions of ‘what is needful’. The first, usually selected in English Bibles, is ‘only one thing’ is necessary, which emphasises listening to Jesus. The second is ‘only a few things’ which indicates that Martha’s problem came from trying to do too much, and the third seems to be from a scribe combining the two rather awkwardly, ‘only a few things or one’.
‘Only a few things’ suggests the historical setting: Martha in her desire to be lavish has provided a lot more than needed. ‘One thing’ is a focus to the choice Jesus commends. Both of these make good sense. The Greek word Luke uses can mean ‘good, better, or best’ part so we can make a choice. In all three readings, the basic point is that Mary’s part is not to be denied in the interests of serving at table. Since Jesus in other parts of the gospel praises service, this doesn’t mean Martha’s care was rejected, instead being a disciple is a greater. It echoes words Jesus used to reject Satan’s temptation, ‘People do not live by bread alone’.
There is another point: Martha asks Jesus to intervene between her and her sister, and he does not give such orders. A few chapters later (12:13), a man asks Jesus to tell his brother to share the family inheritance, and Jesus answers more abruptly, ‘Who made me your arbitrator?’ We are to take responsibility for our own part in relationships, and not ask the Lord to overcome another’s freedom of choice.
A final aspect is that Mary is taking the place of a disciple to a rabbi, ‘sitting at his feet’. That was not something women could do in that society, so we can see Jesus is emphasizing that women have an equal role with the male disciples in hearing and responding.
Everyone can ‘listen’ to Jesus through the scriptures, and also in prayer when we ‘talk’ to God, we can also ‘listen’ in silence for the Lord to touch us in our hearts. A passage such as this story in Luke shows a rich spread of interpretations to draw on what is needed in our life.