Sunday, July 18, 2010

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the Christian tradition,
today’s Gospel has usually been understood
in terms of two different sorts of Christian callings –
the calling to the life of active service, represented by Martha,
and the calling to the life of contemplative prayer, represented by Mary –
and the relative superiority of the life of contemplation to the life of action.
But if we read this story from Luke’s gospel in light of our first reading,
which is the story from Genesis
about Abraham’s reception of three mysterious angelic figures
who bring him unexpected tidings
of the impending birth of Isaac, his son,
then the story of Mary and Martha can also be read
as a story about hospitality.
In particular, it is a story about our hospitality
and the hospitality of God.

In our parish of Corpus Christi
we tend to think of ourselves as a pretty hospitable bunch,
welcoming all sorts and conditions of people into our community
and seeking to live together the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ,
good news that inspires us to reach out to the stranger.
Indeed, the annual event of Artscape allows us to show our hospitality
by offering our church building as a venue for performances,
as well as offering the building itself
as one of the significant works of art in the city of Baltimore,
a space that speaks through the medium of art
of the fundamental mysteries of our Catholic Christian faith.
And, in the past few weeks,
we have had the additional opportunity to flex our hospitality muscles
in welcoming Fr. Marty as our new pastor.
It is precisely these sorts of occasions
that invite us to reflect on what it means to be hospitable.

In the ancient world, receiving hospitality was necessary for survival
when one found oneself a stranger in a strange land
and hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts had not yet been invented.
The first reading notes that Abraham sees the three visitors,
“when the day was growing hot”
and that he offers them shade and water, as well as food to eat.
In a harsh physical environment, receiving and offering hospitality
can be a matter of life and death.
In this case, the three visitors
are messengers or angels sent from God,
so it is not so important that they receive hospitality
as it is that Abraham offers it to them.
Indeed, throughout the Old Testament God tells the Israelites
that they are to show hospitality to strangers
because God has shown hospitality to them,
taking them in when they were wandering strangers without a homeland.
Part of what it means truly to receive God’s hospitality,
is to show hospitality to others.

In the Gospel, Martha reacts to the arrival of Jesus
in a way not unlike Abraham
reacting to the arrival of his three guests:
she runs around, getting things ready,
becoming in the process, as Jesus notes,
“anxious and worried about many things.”
Indeed, she gets herself in such a state
that she asks Jesus, her houseguest,
to take her side in an argument with her sister:
“Lord, do you not care that my sister
has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me.”

Think about this for a second:
someone comes to your house
and you try to drawn him into a domestic dispute.
This is hospitality?
It sounds more like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
It would be as if we asked our newly-arrived pastor
to take a side in some long-standing feud among parishioners,
and I know none of us would ever do something like that.
Martha may think she is the one being hospitable,
but in fact she has tried to put Jesus, her guest,
in a very uncomfortable position.
Moreover, she is so busy doing things for Jesus
that she cannot take the time to be with Jesus, her guest,
except to pop in to complain about her sister.

We might be inclined to forgive Martha these breaches of hospitality
since she, like many of us, is burdened with much serving.
Also, she is, after all, only doing what she thinks is expected of her
as a woman in the household.
Indeed, she probably presumed that, as a woman,
all that she could offer a religious teacher like Jesus
was her anxious, worried activity.
What she cannot imagine –
but which somehow Mary can imagine –
is that Jesus wants her to be with him,
in the position of a disciple,
sitting at his feet
and learning from him the mysteries of God’s kingdom.
Mary chooses the better part
because she chooses to be with Jesus;
she gives her guest the one thing that he really wants:
herself as his disciple.

True hospitality, Jesus seems to be saying,
is not so much a doing-for as it is a being-with.
In our everyday acts of hospitality,
all of our anxious and worried activity –
cooking food, making beds, cleaning bathrooms –
must at some point come to a stop
so that we can finally do the one thing
at which all our activity aims:
being with our guest;
giving ourselves to him or her by opening ourselves
and truly listening to what our guest has to say.
And when the one whom we are welcoming is God,
it is even more the case
that the only thing we really have to give
is our attentive presence.
We cannot really do-for God;
but we can certainly be-with God.
It is as if we show God hospitality
by accepting the hospitality God offers us.
That, after all, is all that God really desires.

And in the hospitality that we as Christians show to others –
whether through opening our church at Artscape,
or welcoming couples who wish to get married here,
or inviting people who want to explore the Catholic faith
to consider the RCIA process,
or even celebrating the arrival of a new pastor –
what we are really doing is inviting them to join us
in accepting God’s hospitality,
to join us in being-with God by being-with each other.
For it is in giving and receiving such hospitality
that we truly are corpus Christi: the body of Christ.