By Rev. Ted Thornton
Our reading from Luke’s gospel this morning pits us against a problem that should feel familiar to us all, the problem of competing agendas: in this case, between two sisters who are friends of Jesus. At stake in this contest is the ancient Middle Eastern code of hospitality, one of the most important virtues of life in the Middle East for all the people who’ve lived there throughout the ages and down into our own time.
In 1979, I spent a summer studying at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. One hot day, some of us traveled south to visit the tenth-century BC ruins of Beersheba, located in the northern Negev desert region of Israel. It’s the place where Abraham swore an oath with the Philistine king Abimelech in Genesis 21:25-34, the oath that gave Abraham rights to draw water from the well there. It goes without saying that rights to water sources are important to have if you’re going to survive, especially so in the Negev desert. That well is where God renewed the divine promise to Isaac in Genesis 26:23: “I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.”
The day in July when we visited the remains of ancient Beersheba the temperature was close to a hundred degrees. A group of Arab Bedouins had pitched their goat hair tents near the site of the ancient city. Outside one tent we were amused to see a Honda generator and a TV antenna. There were a few children playing among the city ruins and a woman we assumed to be the grandmother of the kids who, with no questions asked and no hesitation, approached and offered us loaves of freshly baked pita bread still warm from the oven. She was practicing the ancient Middle Eastern custom of hospitality: diyafa in Arabic, eruach in Hebrew.
Fuller Theological Seminary Professor Peter Altmann offers one of the clearest summaries of the importance of hospitality in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. It all begins with this critical question: What should we do with strangers, people who just show up at the opening of your tent as we did on that hot July day, or in Abraham’s case from our reading in Genesis 18 when he shows up at Abimelech’s tent?
People away from home need protection, shelter, and food. They are at the mercy of the locals. In response, the Hebrew Bible makes a central virtue of hospitable care for outsiders. The Israelites were reminded in scripture (Leviticus 19:34, for example) that they, too, had been aliens in Egypt. Hence, it was their duty to care for strangers.
Jesus, like many Passover pilgrims and despite more than one visit to the city we know about, was a stranger in Jerusalem, and as a Galilean he was doubly suspect because his home region had a reputation for rebellion against the ruling empire of Rome. Anti-Roman terrorists from Galilee had become a constant thorn in the Roman side in Jesus’ time.
The law of hospitality is alive and well in the Middle East today, especially in Arab countries. Over the course of my thirty-four years teaching at Northfield Mount Hermon, I led several student and teacher travel study trips to Egypt and Jordan among other countries. More than once, I found myself face to face with those ancient laws of hospitality, especially at those times when I was there to conduct business of any kind such as securing lodging for my students and getting us started on our itineraries.
If you plan to do business in Arab countries, I quickly learned not to expect to seal any deals on the first meeting, or even the second, third, and sometimes fourth. Instead, I had to allow time to be lavished with hospitable offers of tea (shay), Turkish coffee (ahwa mazbut) and food. The custom of spending more time than seems necessary receiving hospitality from one’s Arab counterparts can become frustrating for Western businessmen and women who are sent over on tight expense accounts and for whom time is money. But that’s what you’ve got to be prepared to do if you want to do business in the Middle East.
Conversations that don’t begin with extensive questions over the course of perhaps multiple meetings about your family life and where you live will never be the case. Business is always business deferred until a relationship is formed. That’s the whole point of hospitality for Middle Easterners: establishing relationships. As was the case with Abraham, lavishing rest and refreshment on the strangers who visited him and the Bedouin woman who welcomed me and my friends with fresh bread, hospitality is its own reward. Relationships have always been the most important safeguard for making and keeping peace with one another in the Middle East.
So, why after taking note of all this is there a problem with Martha and how she behaves in the gospel today? Elizabeth Johnson, Catholic theologian and Professor Emeritus at Fordham University tells us that the problem in the gospel today is not Martha’s hospitality; it’s her distractibility. There’s more going on with Jesus’ visit than meets Martha’s eye.
What starts out as a pleasant story about Jesus being welcomed into the home of beloved friends takes a sharp turn when Martha, distracted by her many tasks, comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me (10:40).”
Many of us may cheer Mary for her inversion of the traditional role of women: she takes time out to simply sit with and converse with a man instead of waiting on him hand and foot. Others may empathize with Martha’s resentment of her sister for leaving her to do all the work. Some of us may do both and end up doubly perplexed.
Jesus’ response to Martha seems less than sympathetic: he chides her for her distraction and her worry, and in turn praises Mary for taking time out from her duties as hospitable co-host.
The problem with Martha is not that she is busy serving and providing hospitality. Certainly Jesus commends this kind of service to the neighbor many times, notably in the parable of the Good Samaritan we heard Heather preach about last Sunday. That story in Luke immediately precedes the story of Mary and Martha. It’s where Jesus goes out of his way to point out the duty we have to treat strangers, even those we may dislike. The problem again with Martha is not her hospitality, but that she is worried and distracted. The Greek word Luke uses in verse 40, periespato, that we translate as “distracted,” has the connotation of being pulled or dragged in different directions. We’re back to competing agendas, aren’t we?
Martha’s distraction leaves no room for the most important aspect of hospitality: gracious attention to the guest. In fact, she goes on to further break the rules of hospitality by trying to embarrass her sister in front of her guest and by asking her guest to intervene in a family dispute. She even goes so far as to accuse Jesus of not caring about her (“Lord, do you not care…?”).
At this point, it’s helpful to consider the geography of this story of Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha. The geography of the story is a crucial backdrop to understanding why there may be more important things going on in this particular visit of Jesus than hospitalitable offerings of food, drink, and a safe haven.
It’s well known that Luke uses the geography of the Holy Land, and especially Jerusalem, to frame his theology of Jesus’ message and mission. Luke in fact saturates his geography with spiritual force. It would not be too extravagant to say that for Luke the geography of Jerusalem and its nearby surroundings is the stage upon which the good news of Jesus' conquest of death and our salvation is played out.
The story of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha is set in Bethany, just a couple of miles from Jerusalem and very near the Mount of Olives. Bethany is a powerfully charged place in Luke’s gospel. It churns with cosmological potency. Bethany is near the summit of the Mount of Olives where Jesus ascended into heaven. That’s only about an hour’s walk from the old city of Jerusalem, only a few minutes walk from the path Jesus took on Palm Sunday, and less than an hour from the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spends his last night on earth.
Early Christians who were familiar with the geography of Jerusalem and who listened to Luke’s narrative would have understood instantly why Jesus gently but firmly indicates to Martha that there are more urgent needs at this point, the last days of his life, than hospitality: Bethany, the place, is the beginning of the end of physical life for him and with his ascension into heaven the beginning for him and for us of salvation for this mortal and broken world we inhabit. It’s at Bethany in the home of good friends sisters Mary and Martha that Mary, echoing the Jewish custom of anointing corpses in their tombs, anoints Jesus’ feet with oil in John 12 and where Jesus raises their brother Lazarus from the dead in John 11. Bethany is literally the gateway into eternal life. It’s where this world touches eternity. Orthodox Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, the first to rise from the dead will be those buried on the Mount of Olives. Forthis reason its slopes have been the most sacred burial ground in Judaism for centuries.
During the ‘80s, I spent two summers working on an archaeological dig in Israel. The dig team spent its weekends in Jerusalem. One Saturday morning, a small group of us got up before dawn and climbed the streets up to the Mount of Olives to watch the sunrise on the walls of the old city. Those walls glow with a dazzling, fiery, golden hue in first morning light. It was easy to imagine you’d temporarily entered the next world. We were reminded of the vision of the new Jerusalem in Revelation 18: “The city was made of pure gold, clear as crystal.” I have to imagine that the writer of Revelation was inspired by the golden glory of sunrise on the city walls of Jerusalem.
The significance of the story we heard today of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha is that it belongs to passiontide: it’s part of a chronicle of the sequence of events of Jesus' last days on earth and indicators of another, better world to come.
Jesus isn’t saying to Martha, “Forget about being hospitable.” He is saying be attentive to those moments in our lives when we need to suspend business as usual and turn our attention to more pressing matters, in this case, the point in historical time when we become acutely aware of the convergence of two worlds: the present physical life we all inhabit and the eternal world to come, the convergence of the world of hospitality and acts of loving kindness on the one hand and the world of eternal divine reality on the other.
Luke’s stories of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and Mary and Martha demonstrate clearly Luke’s approach to the gospel and in particular Jesus' ministry. Some have observed that the Gospel of Luke at various points breaks the mold of our expectations with the force of Zen koans, those paradoxical Buddhist word puzzles that challenge our expectations about what’s real and important, that challenge our prejudicial notions of what’s right and good, that challenge our egotistical judgments about things and about other people, that challenge our personal political echo chambers. Martha’s problem today is that she can’t quite bring herself to see that for Jesus it’s not business as usual anymore.
You and I are not in Bethany today. For us, the ancient code of hospitality is still one of the key ways we can act out Jesus’ commandment to love one another; just as long as we keep in mind that the backdrop of that commandment as well as the backdrop to all our business as usual is our faithful conviction that every hospitable act is fundamentally an act of love, not an act of duty, and that these acts are playing themselves out against the backdrop of the eternal journey of our souls through this world and into eternity.
On Friday, July 7, over a hundred of our fellow Episcopalians interrupted their business as usual as convention delegates to convene at a place near the convention center where yet another gun murder had occurred two days earlier. Will business as usual for you this coming week be interrupted by some event that brings you in touch with the spiritual reality that undergirds our everyday lives? If so, I hope yours will be one that leads you into deeper discernment of and commitment to your relationship with God. Look upon it as God’s hospitality, as nourishment and a safe haven for your soul.
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