Who likes doing the housework?
Who likes doing the housework when everyone else is just sitting around doing nothing and not helping?
It’s really annoying, isn’t it? After all, someone has to do the housework. Even more annoying when no-one else offers to help!
Today’s gospel is about two people – one who was busy getting things done and another who just sat around and did nothing – Martha and Mary!
Where would we be without the Marthas of this world – without those people who are always active, making sure the work gets done, so that life can go on? And yet – if today’s gospel reading is to be taken seriously – it appears that Jesus seems to prefer people to just sit, listen, and set the work aside.
I know that this gospel sometimes irritates busy people who feel that they have no time, that Jesus is being unreasonable, but before I try and deal with that question, let us consider the messages of today’s reading. For in fact, there are two.
The first is about the virtue of hospitality. It was Martha who welcomed Jesus into her home. In the ancient world hospitality was supremely important. Hospitality – welcoming other people to your home and looking after their needs – was considered to be a sacred duty. And offering hospitality to strangers was particularly important – after all, you never knew whom you might be welcoming – the stranger you had welcomed to your home might be an angel in disguise.
Or even God himself. In our Old Testament reading today we hear how God comes in human form to Abraham. Abraham is traditionally dated to around two thousand years before Christ. And this is a fascinating story – God comes in the form of three men, and yet the three are addressed by Abraham as My Lord in the singular. And because of this, this event has always been understood by Christians as an early appearance of the Trinity – an appearance of the Trinity two thousand years before Christians came to understand that God was Three and yet One. And we are told how Abraham welcomes God and provides God with hospitality.
And it was believed by many at the ti me of Jesus that God often tested people by sending an angel in disguise to see how welcoming they would be. And sometimes, they thought, he would even come himself, as he had to Abraham. So you had to welcome every stranger as if you were welcoming God himself.
This idea of welcoming God when you welcome any person is found even more clearly in the New Testament. Jesus says, as you may remember:
Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and those who welcome me, welcome the one who sends me.
To welcome others, to offer them food and drink and even, if they need it, clothing, is to offer them to Christ who said:
In as far as you did this to one of the least of my people, you did it to me.
This is the deepest meaning of hospitality and we can thank God that it is going on all the time. Whenever you welcome someone into your home and give them a cup of tea, you are welcoming Christ, as Saint Benedict told his monks in his Rule. Well – I don’t think Saint Benedict had a teapot, living as he did in the 6th century, but he says in his rule for monks: All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’
Hospitality – and especially hospitality to strangers – was supremely important in Jewish religion and culture at the time of Jesus, as it has always been in Christianity and continues to be today.
So we come to the story of Martha and Mary.
What’s going on? Because Martha is the one who is providing the hospitality, and yet all the favour of Jesus seems to be with Mary. Martha was busy about many things, about preparing the meal – she was worrying herself unduly. Was the meal going to be good enough for the special visitor? Would it be ready in time? Meanwhile her sister Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to his word. I wouldn’t mind betting that Martha was muttering things under her breath about a certain person just sitting there doing nothing. In the end she appeals to Jesus to get Mary to help. Jesus says to Martha:
Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing”
By which he probably meant – don’t prepare a big meal – one dish is enough.
The reason why this gospel passage often irritates busy people is that it seems to make them second class citizens. They protest inwardly “We can’t all sit down and read the Bible for as long as we like”. Or “Have we all got to become like monks and nuns?” But all of us need to listen to the word of Jesus and we all need to take time off to do so, just as Martha needed to stop working and listen.
Excessive, on-going activity can wear us out and blot out any sense of God and of the presence of God. There are certain things in life that are more important than our daily tasks – not that daily tasks need not be done, but that sometimes they have to take second place. If Martha was being criticised for anything it was not so much for being busy as for fretting and fussing. In any case, in John’s gospel we see how Martha shows that she has been listening to Jesus. After the death of her brother she makes her profession of faith in Jesus: “Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into the world.” Perhaps she had more than an inkling of this as she welcomed Jesus into her home.
There are, of course, people who are on the go for most of the day through no fault of their own – people who care for others, whether it is an elderly or sick relative or a mother with young children. Parents who have the task of caring for young children are often on the go for nearly twenty-four hours a day. Small children can be very demanding. They have to be cared for, washed and fed and even at night they wake up parents with their crying. Life for primary carers can be extremely stressful and this is where we might recall the message about hospitality. Others not so burdened might step in and help – take care of the children for a while, or go and spend some time sitting with a sick relative, so that people can get a break – some time to relax, be quiet, a chance to unwind and reflect.
Because all of us need, in a way, to combine something of Mary and Martha in our approach to life. And it’s something we can help each other to do. Like Mary we need to set time aside to listen to the word of Jesus, as we should do whenever we have the opportunity. But this should always lead us on into service – exercising that gift of hospitality that we have seen in Martha – welcoming and serving those whom we meet. Looking after their bodily needs and giving them space to rest and relax.
Because in so doing we serve Christ in one another.