Hospitality, in its most profound sense, is something more than the sharing of superficial entertainment. Such hospitality welcomes another not only into our homes, but also, and most importantly, into our hearts. Throughout the scriptures, and especially in the gospels, such hospitality becomes a model of salvation. When we welcome Christ into our lives we welcome the Father who sent him. The Son invites us to make our home in him. Jesus promised his disciples that when we love the Father and keep his commandments, Father, Son and Holy Spirit make their dwelling in us.
Abraham, the Father of Israel, was remembered for his hospitality. While encamped at the Oak of Mamre he welcomed three passing strangers into his tent, offering them refreshment and shelter from the desert sun. Under the harsh conditions of the southern wilderness, the offer of such hospitality was a matter of life and death for transient nomads. Unbeknown to Abraham, the passing strangers were angels from God. Subsequent art and speculation even likened them to the three persons of the Blessed Trinity. Such speculation certainly goes beyond what can be supported from the narrative in the Book of Genesis.
Nevertheless, the narrative underlines that when we open our hearts to the needy stranger, we open our hearts to God himself.
Within the broader context of the Genesis narrative, Abraham and Sarah had welcomed these strangers at a time when their own personal hopes were at their lowest ebb. They had committed their lives to the promise that God would raise up, from their offspring, a nation that would become his own people.
Advancing years seemed to have denied them any hope that the promise would be fulfilled. It was this act of kindness to strangers that opened the door to God and to renewed hope. “I shall visit you again next year without fail and your wife will then have a son.”
We are reminded that the generosity that reaches beyond its own narrow concerns to welcome the stranger, welcomes God himself, the source of every blessing.
Luke’s Gospel recounts the hospitality provided for Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary. Jesus was welcomed into their home, and while Martha set about the practicalities of caring for their guest, Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to his words.
In a scenario that must be familiar in just about every household, Martha complained that she alone had been left to shoulder the heavy burden of hospitality. “Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do all the serving by myself? Please tell her to help me.”
When hospitality becomes self-pity for its own imagined burdens, it begins to lose the point, which is, first and foremost, to welcome the guest into our hearts. The response to Martha’s complaint underlined this fundamental truth: “Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed, only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.”
During this Year of Faith we are reminded that Faith is the hospitality with which, like Mary, we welcome Christ into our hearts. We pray that he might make his home in us, and so we sit listening at his feet, surrendering ourselves to his presence.
Only in his sustaining presence can we subsequently assume to mantle of Martha. We set about the practical work of bringing our faith to a needy world. Mary’s contemplation gives birth to Martha’s committed work, and we need both.