21 July 2019
Anyone who has ever held a dinner party or cooked for someone important can sympathise with Martha: we want to make sure the meal is the best it could possibly be, down to the last detail, but we end up spending so much time fussing over these details that we get flustered and don’t have the leisure we would like in order to enjoy the guest’s company. Add to that the infuriating fact that someone who could and should be helping us just sits around doing nothing but lapping up every word the guest has to say, and it’s no surprise that Martha got annoyed.
Hospitality is very much the theme of today’s readings, and it plays a big part in the Bible, where heaven is often compared to a banquet God throws for us with the very best food and wine. That’s hardly surprising given the important part hospitality plays in the Middle East and other traditional cultures: a guest, whether expected or not, is often viewed as a messenger from God himself and must be treated with the appropriate respect and cordiality.
What is surprising about both the first reading and the Gospel today is that God is not the host in these stories, but is himself the guest. If you know the famous icon by Rublev now in a Moscow museum, you will remember that the three angels whom Abraham entertains in the first reading have traditionally been interpreted in Christian belief as the three members of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Abraham, unlike Martha, has lots of helpers to ease the production of a suitable meal to entertain such awe-inspiring visitors: his wife Sarah and his servants scurry around and come up with something worthy of such guests without the resentment that affects Martha in the Gospel.
There’s another big difference in the two stories, also. In the first reading, the divine messengers come with a specific purpose which is part of God’s plan to set aside the descendants of Abraham, who will later be called Israelites and Jews, as his chosen people, so they come to announce a miracle: Sarah, though past the age of childbearing, will have a son who will be Abraham’s heir, Isaac. In the Gospel, however, there is no purpose to Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary other than just enjoying their company and talking to them about himself and the Kingdom of God.
It’s a wonderful picture of what we do when we pray, whether on our own, in our private room or in Church, or when we come together on Sundays and other days to worship, and it also explains why many people in our busy world find it so hard to set aside time to do this. There simply is no other purpose in prayer and worship than to spend time with God, to be in his company, to eat and drink with him in the Eucharist, to listen to him speaking to us in his word. And the amazing thing is that it is God who humbles himself to be our guest, who knocks patiently at our door hoping that we will let him in and make room and time for him. How disappointed he must be when he finds us, like Martha, so busy doing good things that we have no time or space for him, the origin of all that is good.
You see, we are inclined to think that it’s all about us searching for God. It’s true, we do have a desire for God, which we feel more or less strongly at different times of our life, and sometimes this is expressed in a desire to go away on pilgrimage or retreat, or to make time for prayer. But far more important is the fact that God is searching for us. He has a great desire to be with us, to make his home with us, to be admitted into the secrets of our heart. And you can’t let someone into the secrets of your heart if you’re rushing around making sure the sauce doesn’t thicken too much or the roast potatoes burn as I managed to do the other day.
If you’ve ever visited a convent of Mother Teresa’s nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, you’ll remember that they always have in their chapel next to the crucifix the words Jesus spoke from the Cross: I thirst. Literally these words refer to his physical thirst as he was dying on the Cross. But they can be interpreted in a deeper way: Jesus thirsts for our love, for even the slightest sign of gratitude on our part or recognition of what he has done for us, giving his whole self for us to bring us his divine life. He doesn’t really ask a lot from us: he knows we have many things to do each day, he knows how complicated many of our lives have become in these times. He simply looks for an opportunity, as any lover does, to show us how deeply he loves us and what a difference he can make to our lives if we slow down from time to time, sit at his feet like Mary and drink in his words.