Today’s first reading situates the announcement of the promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah amidst the context of the offering of hospitality to strangers in whom Abraham recognizes the presence of God. The Lord appeared to Abraham and inspired his hospitality. Abraham asked for the blessing to be able to offer hospitality. In the ancient world, hospitality could mean the difference between life and death. Abraham offered not only food, but also water to drink and cleanse, and a cool spot to rest in the shade to his guests. Sarah, the servant, and Abraham worked together to prepare the special meal. Abraham did not sit with the men while they ate, but he waited on them, standing nearby. Having sustained the life of his guests, the fulfillment of the promise of new life went to Sarah, who remained in the tent.
The first reading stands in contrast to the Gospel reading from Luke. We have a contradiction upon first glance when we juxtapose these two stories. God blesses Abraham, Sarah, and their household for offering food, water and a place to rest for the men in need. In contrast, in the Gospel account, Jesus tells Martha that her sister, who sits and listens at his feet, has chosen the better part. This passage about Martha and Mary has often been held up as the paradigmatic account that demonstrates the superiority of contemplation over action. In fact, I must admit that this story did influence my own decision as a woman to study philosophy, theology and the Bible. I, too, wanted to choose “the better part.”
So when we juxtapose these two stories in the lectionary, are we to glean that men sometimes need to take action on behalf of offering hospitality and wait at table, and that women sometimes need to let the dishes sit and pick up some spiritual reading or engage in a deep, reflective conversation? Perhaps. I think we would all do well to consider daily how we balance active service and contemplative practices in our lives. However, within the context of Luke’s Gospel, I think that another layer of meaning makes more sense, especially in light of Jesus’ teachings on worry in Luke 12.
Luke describes Martha as “burdened” with much serving. Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help Martha with this burden. Jesus does not intervene and does not tell Mary what to do. He respects and values her autonomy and her choice. Jesus does intervene on behalf of Martha’s wellbeing, however. He tells her, repeating her name twice, to emphasize his personal care for her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.”
In this account, had Martha been serving with energy and joy, in the manner of Abraham, Sarah and the servant, her conversation with Jesus would never have occurred. Can you recall being at a gathering with a harried host or hostess? Frankly, this begrudging and stressed out service can ruin the spirit of the gathering. We get no such sense of fatigue, resentment and frustration from the service offered in the Genesis story. The peace and joy that underlie both service to (Abraham, Sarah and the servant) and presence to (Mary) the guests weigh most heavily in Jesus’ teachings.
Sometimes a bitter host might be functioning from a model of scarcity. Are we afraid that our food, money or energy will run out and leave us empty-handed and drained? Yes, sometimes we resemble Abraham and sometimes we resemble Martha as we serve. When we see ourselves serving from a place of anxiety and bitterness, Jesus calls us to pause and to reconsider our actions. We can put them down for a while until we rediscover the place of the peace of Christ in the Spirit within us from which to offer care. Choosing the better part means choosing God’s peace for ourselves and hence for those we encounter, whether we find ourselves in the role of Mary or Martha.