Genesis 18:1-10 & Luke 10:38-42
I grew up taking piano lessons – many years of piano lessons. Our home’s piano was a generous, surprise Christmas gift from my grandfather when I was about 8 years old. The next fall lessons began. I stayed with it longer than any of my siblings. We each took lessons, and some of us grew to love music, but none of us learned to play well enough to play in church, which was what the lessons were for.
I took piano lessons from age 8 to around age 14. Then my teacher retired and so did I. But a year or so later, I took up piano as a contemplative practice. In our busy household, there were not many opportunities for quiet reflection, but while playing the piano, I could pray, and no one would bother me. It was like hiding in plain sight, because no one knew – even I didn’t know until I looked back on the experience – no one knew what I was doing.
But I knew something had changed. Piano was different than before. It wasn’t just counting up how many times I played the scale or repeated the piece. It wasn’t about accomplishment, or excellence. I went somewhere deep inside when I played – no matter how poorly. I began not to even notice the wrong notes. They didn’t matter.
There is a reason why I relate this story today. One thing could ruin it. And it was this that helped me know how important it was. It was when my mom would call me to help set the table, or make a salad, or whatever! And she would always call when I was in the middle of a piece, in the middle of a verse, in the middle of a measure! She clearly did not hear anything that was so real for me. She would just crash right into the middle of it with her, “Come, I need you now.”
My Mom was a saint! And she knew the contemplative practice, so it wasn’t that. She just needed help right then, if food was going to be ready for dinner in time for everyone to get to their evening activities.
Hmmm. Sounds a lot like Martha. Mom, at these moments was a lot like Martha – all practicality and getting things done. While Mary was in prayer, in the presence of the divine, soaking up whatever Jesus was offering. Open-souled in that moment. The clash of dishes weren’t even heard, for her inner ear was tuned elsewhere, in the timeless present.
Two things were happening at the same time. There was the ancient, beautiful gift of hospitality going on in the livingroom and in the kitchen. Hospitality was present in the whole house. In the kitchen it was the hospitality meal preparation; in the livingroom it was the hospitality of honoring, noticing, paying attention to the guest. No one knows what they may have been talking about – storytelling, the latest healing, or perhaps the play-by-play of the latest soccer match. It could have been anything. But Mary’s posture at Jesus’ feet means that she was in contemplation, in worship, recognizing the great thing which was happening in this living room. The hospitality of preparation and presence are both alive in the room, at the same time.
And Jesus values both. When he counters Martha’s request for help, he does so with great tenderness. The repetition of her name is a common rhetorical device conveying compassion or tenderness. I can almost imagine Jesus reaching out and touching Martha, to refocus her, calm her, as he told her that it was not an either-or; what Mary had chosen was good, too, and he would not ask her to leave.
One of the problems with this story of Mary and Martha is that we tend to make it a matter of comparisons. Who was right and who was wrong, or which sister is better than the other. When their brother died and Jesus came to them, it was Martha who showed strong faith. She is the one who confessed Jesus to be Lord and Messiah. Martha is the one who went on to be recognized as one of the apostles of the early church. Martha is strong, Mary is tender. Both are good.
But Jesus’ words sting: “Mary has chosen what is better.” But is that what he said? The plain meaning of the Greek text doesn’t make it a comparison. Rather it says that what Mary has chosen is good: “Mary chooses the good part, which will not be taken from her.” Translators easily went to the very human need for clarity. If one thing is important, then one choice must be better than the other. Who is better? We have popular game shows where experts help us decide who is the best voice, or has the most talent. Here Jesus honors both women with affirmation and tender care. What Martha was doing, he did not condemn; the way Martha was doing it – with worry and distraction – needed to be let go, but not the tasks. I think perhaps this is what Jesus was saying about the one thing that is necessary. The worry and scurry of trying to make everything just right, gets Martha (and us) caught up in chaos, juggling, which requires concentration. But the tasks themselves? Can they be done also in the spirit of hospitality?
If we say that Jesus favored Mary’s choice to sit rather than serve, that is to say that Jesus downplays service, which, if you read the Gospel of Luke, makes no sense at all. If Jesus had sided with Martha, that would have been to say that service is all that matters. Clearly, both matter, if you read the Gospel of Luke carefully – service and contemplation. Jesus said, one thing is needful. But maybe that one thing was not the choice between roles.
The problem with our hurry culture is that we don’t often pause long enough to appreciate the art of contemplation. We are all about service, getting things done. And Jesus encouraged that. But Jesus’ life was full of balance. Doing, serving, healing, feeding. Then resting, praying, retreating, eating. The contemplation – don’t forget it. It is good.
The story of Abraham has similar elements. In this case, Abraham himself plays both roles. First, he invites the strangers to be his guests, which is what Martha had done. Then he rushes around – there is a lot of hurry in this story! He rushes to give Sarah instructions about how much bread to bake, then rushes to the field to pick out the best calf. Then he rushes to get milk and cheese for hors d’oeuvres. There is a lot of Martha in this side of Abraham’s character. But then Abraham stops. He stands under the tree near the guests. He stands close enough that he can hear their conversation, as well as be ready to respond quickly to any need they might have. He is all attentiveness.
Here is where he becomes more like Mary. Attentiveness. Perhaps that is one thing. Abraham is silent for the rest of the story. He says nothing. He does nothing. He treasures all these things in his heart, like Luke says of Jesus’ mother.
The rest of the story is about Sarah. The guest addresses Sarah, who is off stage, behind the folds of the tent. The guest blesses her saying that she will have a baby by this time next year. She laughs, perhaps because she sees it as a compliment – how young and beautiful she still looks at her age. “If he only knew how old I am!” she giggled. But the guest re-iterates, “no, I mean it. You will have a baby.” She bows, makes excuses, and, embarrassed, retreats into the tent.
…And Abraham treasured all these things in his heart. Abraham is in the role of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, too. He hears the words, but doesn’t laugh. He pays attention, lets the words linger long enough to pose their question: I wonder….
Often the first step of contemplation is this simple questioning observation, “I wonder….” To pause in the moment and ask, “I wonder, (dot, dot, dot).” And those dots are important. They imply taking a breath, holding the thought for a moment, letting imagination have its way with you for a moment, letting in the idea that it may be different that we think.
That was Mary of Bethany, that was Abraham, that was Mary mother of Jesus. And Jesus said, It is good. It sounds like God’s pronouncement over creation: It is good.
So I wonder how valuing attentiveness might influence our hospitality today. The Greek word for “hospitality” actually means love of strangers, or even love of enemies, from the Greek words “phileo,” love as a brother or sister, and “xenos,” stranger, immigrant or enemy. To have true hospitality is to treat the other with the love you would have for a brother or sister, even without knowing whether they are friend or foe. And here may be the role for contemplation. When we encounter the unknown, how do we respond? Do we take the Martha approach and get busy making everything ready, or do we take the Mary approach and add some time to sit down, look into the eyes of the other, to make a connection which makes him brother or sister? To pay attention? To notice the other, deeply and fully, rather than focus on what we are serving?
Sometimes when we meet someone different from us, we spend more time wondering what is the politically correct thing to do, than actually making connection. Contemplation lets us say, “I wonder…,” just long enough to let our hearts open to the other. And that is the beginning of treating the other as a beloved.
I have often said that God is love, and that every time there is a connection made between two people that is Holy Spirit, for God is love. Every time we connect with another, God is there. And God will do God’s work in them and in us. And it is good.
Maybe hospitality is simply the gift of making room for the spirit of love to join us; to notice and value the other; to say, It is good.