Forty-second in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42
One of the most highly regarded practices in the ancient world was hospitality, the action of welcoming and making friendship with guests. It was something that the Roman, Greek and Jewish worlds had in common; the reasons and the particulars of duty may have have differed among the cultures, but they all agreed upon the idea that a guest had a right to be received by the host and a host had a duty to receive the guest. In the modern day hospitality has become less of a “divine right” and has more to do with entertainment than with ensuring the well-being of the guest. Yet most of us today still feel some compulsion, some instinct – whether we wish to act on it or not – to receive the friend who comes to our door, if not the stranger.
In the First Reading Abraham, our father in the faith, receives three guests passing by his tent. He insists on offering them hospitality, wishing to bathe their feet and have them rest before they resume their journey. He has his wife Sarah bake some rolls, a servant kills and prepares a steer, and there is a great meal for the three strangers while Abraham himself waits on them. He wouldn’t know it yet, but Abraham was hosting angels; the very messengers of the LORD were present in his home. And as a reward for his hospitality, the LORD promises the old man and his wife that “about this time next year” they will have a son. That son would be Isaac, who would be the father of Jacob, also called Israel, who would be the ancestor of the nation of faithful ones that endures to this day – and from which the Church itself arose. So in this story, Abraham’s faithful insistence upon hospitality to even unknown strangers ensured that the covenant God made with him – that he would become the father of nations – would begin to come to pass.
Now, this may seem like a cute story from an era that seems to exist only in myths and legends, but it has implications that we today may not realize at the first, simply casual hearing. The Gospel reading with its story of Mary’s and Martha’s hospitality to Jesus reveals to us that hospitality, however much it may be considered a divine mandate legally and socially, is like any other virtue: it cannot be simply acted on by rote in order to have any real value, as if it’s the performance of the action itself that is the important thing rather than the love of neighbor it reveals. While Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to Him speak, Martha is trying to do all the serving by herself. And in her frustration, she asks her Guest to tell her sister Mary to help her serve Him. Jesus offers one of my favorite responses in all of Scripture, one that I repeat to myself almost every day: “[Y]ou are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.” Martha has been so concerned with fulfilling the “letter of the law,” so to speak, of hospitality that she has forgotten where the virtue lies and is quite literally making herself mad. Mary, however, by sitting with Jesus and being attentive as He speaks, has put both Him and herself at ease; God and Man are tending to each other’s well-being. This is why Jesus can say “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her” – certainly not to impose a rigid, legalistic and anxious form of guest-friendship.
Whatever the view and practice of hospitality in our own time and place, it remains central to the Christian virtue of charity and the practice of the Works of Mercy. It is even to be extended to strangers and to our enemies; love of neighbor trumps our comfort zones, our petty differences, and sometimes even our sense of danger. And as such impartial ministers of reconciliation – as people who are called to be “merciful like the Father” – one of the ways in which we exercise that mercy, that charity, that hospitality, is by sharing the Gospel with everyone. Saint Paul, in the Second Reading, calls his evangelizing ministry “God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God.” His ministry is gift from the God Who dwells with Him and within Him, a gift he is to share with all he encounters. To him, and to all Christians, everyone in the world is a guest-friend, someone with whom we are to be pleased to be charitable. In that sense, even our discomforts and dangers in this regard are a gift, something that we receive and then “offer up” to God in this long-form hospitality towards all. So it was that Paul could say that his sufferings were “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.” For the God-Man, Who came not to be served but to serve, bore not only His own sufferings but those of all people across all time. Our sufferings are always able to be added to His through the omni-dimensional focus that is the mystery of the Cross, so that nothing may be lacking in redemption.
In one of my favorite book series, two of the main characters encounter a disembodied artificial consciousness existing tenuously within the vastness of space. Upon entering this being’s habitation, it says to them, “I have nothing to offer you by way of hospitality but tricks of the light. It is possible to be comfortable with tricks of the light, though, if that is all you have.” There is a wonderful lesson to be taken from that line, one echoed in today’s readings. Being hospitable, being merciful is incumbent upon us all, and is to be exercised for the well-being of all, but it does not require more than we have. All we have at any moment is a gift from the One Who is both Host and Guest. Whether we have Abraham’s bread and meat, Mary’s attentive ear, or Paul’s words of witness, or other things more particular to our own station in life, we already have what we need to see to each other’s comfort. So let’s confidently love our neighbor as ourselves – and love God.
Love is still the real Answer to the Ultimate Question.