The better part: hospitality

marthamarybyheqichinaGreek: philoxenia. The practice of receiving a guest or stranger graciously was common to all cultures in the period of both the Old and New Testament. The word most often associated with hospitality in the LXX and the NT is xenos, which literally means foreigner, stranger, or even enemy. In its derived sense, however, the term comes to denote both guest and host alike. Typically, the verb used to describe the extending of hospitality is xenizein (Sir 29:25; 1 Macc 9:6; Acts 10:23; Heb 13:2). In the NT one who receives visitors is said to be philoxenos, i.e., a “lover of strangers,” or to be practicing the virtue of philoxenia (1 Tim 3:2; 1 Pet 4:9; Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2).

The Hebrew Scriptures contain no single word for hospitality, but the activity itself is prominent, especially in the patriarchal stories and accounts in the book of Judges. In these narratives the practice usually illustrates Bedouin traditions having to do with a resident’s obligation to nourish and protect travelers who find themselves in hostile environments. Thus, in Gen 18:1ff. Abraham rushes out of his tent to greet three strangers who approach him “in the heat of the day.” When a feast is set before them, these unknown visitors reveal how God’s promise concerning the son to be born of Abraham and Sarah is at long last approaching fulfillment. By conveying their message, the guests return a favor to their host, thus setting in motion a numinous reciprocity which is typical of stories about table fellowship in the ancient world.  (Also see Gen 24:1-49 where God’s will comes to light through an act of hospitality).

Another feature of hospitality that emerges from the OT is Israel’s deep sense of God as its host. Conscious of its formation from descendants of a “wandering Aramean,” Israel knew and treasured its identity as a pilgrim people (Deut 26:5–22), especially during the Exodus journey when it received manna from God in the wilderness (Exodus 16–17). Having taken possession of the promised land, Israelites nevertheless remembered that their home belonged to Yahweh (Lev 25:23) and that they, like their forebears, remained sojourners and passing guests in God’s eyes (Ps 39:12). Precisely as inhabitants of the land, they pictured themselves being led into green pastures and feted at the table of the divine king in the presence of their enemies. The “house of the Lord” in which they hoped to dwell forever was essentially God’s perpetual hosting (Psalm 23; see also Psalm 104 in which God is portrayed as feeding and sustaining the entire creation day by day). When Israel’s prophets looked forward to an era of perfect righteousness and shalom, it was no accident that they envisioned God entertaining the people at an endless feast (Amos 9:13–15; Joel 3:18; Isa 25:6–8). According to Isaiah, this great banquet would be spread for everyone on earth: “On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees. . . . He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces. . . .” (Isa 25)

As pictured by the Synoptic writers, the ministry of Jesus manifests the theme of hospitality in two basic ways. First, Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom is frequently symbolized by images of food and drink, especially at festive meals. Thus the kingdom is compared to a great banquet (Matt 8:11; 22:1–14 = Luke 14:16–24), and Jesus ends his ministry with a ceremonial meal at which words about eating and drinking in the kingdom are spoken (Mark 14:17–25 and parallels). In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer the petitions for the coming of the kingdom and for daily bread are joined together (Luke 11:2–3 – the passages that immediately follow the pericope of Martha and Mary). Moreover, teaching about the kingdom is implied in Jesus’ pronouncements about feasting with the bridegroom and new wine (Mark 2:18–22 and parallels), in the promise that faithful servants will be invited to enter into the joy (i.e., feast) of their master (Matt 25:21–33), and in the conclusion to the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:20–32). Indeed, the majority of Jesus’ parable sayings have to do with the production and use of food and drink or the providing of homelike refuge for God’s creatures. What lies behind this body of teaching is Jesus’ revelation that God is revealing himself powerfully and eschatologically as Israel’s host. The feast predicted by Isaiah (25:6–8) has already begun to appear in the present world order.

It is Luke especially who accents this theme in Luke-Acts. Only the third gospel contains the parables of the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the rich man and Lazarus, the story of Zaccheus, and the Emmaus narrative, according to which two disciples come to recognize the risen Jesus “in the breaking of bread” (24:35). For its part, Acts may be read as a collection of guest and host stories depicting missionary ventures that have originated in circles associated with the earliest churches. Luke’s special concern is to show how itinerant and residential believers can support one another in the worldwide mission of the Church. Through this mutuality, he believes, the Holy Spirit will bring about rich exchanges of spiritual and material gifts; and the Church will grow.

Images of hospitality occur throughout the other gospels and the epistles. 1 Peter addresses his readers as aliens and exiles who were once “no people” but are now a “chosen race . . . built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (1:1; 2:4–10). As such, they are to “practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another” (4:9). Perhaps the most winsome of all reflections on hospitality by early Christian writers is found in Heb 13:2 where believers are urged to receive strangers graciously on the ground that “thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Clearly the allusion is to Abraham’s enthusiastic reception of the three heavenly messengers. But Jesus too may come as a stranger. Matthew, Luke, and John all make this point (Matt 25:31–46; Luke 24:13–35; John 20:11ff.; 21:1–14). And so does the author of Revelation when he records the words of the Risen One to the church in Laodicea: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; of any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (3:20). The context indicates that this meal with Jesus, like many of those narrated in the gospels, will be one of repentance and reconciliation.

During the mission of the other 72 disciples, Jesus told them they are to stay and eat in people’s homes, as Jesus is doing in our text. Sometimes they and their message will be welcomed (10:5-8), sometimes not (9:52-53; 10:10-12). Martha welcomes Jesus and his group. She demonstrates the proper response of hospitality – of setting food before the disciples, but as Tannehill (Luke, 187) notes – in the mission of the 72:

receiving the messengers seemed equivalent to receiving the message. The story of Martha and Mary adds a qualification to that simple assumption: The task of hospitality may actually distract one from the message. Hospitality was very important to the early church, but this story cautions that preoccupation with arrangements can lead one to lose contact with the community’s real purpose. This is especially apparent when a woman cannot graciously allow a sister to spend time listening to the Lord’s word.

So… in the tradition of Abraham, Martha is the one who offers hospitality to Jesus and his disciples.

Sources

  • John Koenig, “Hospitality” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1996, c1992). Vol.3, p.299
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970
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