Column: Martha’s story continues theme of hospitality

by Father Mike Stubbs

A while back, someone gave me a cookbook containing recipes for one-dish meals.

Instead of preparing separate vegetable dishes, or meat dishes, or starch dishes, everything would be combined into one dish for that meal, as a casserole, a stew, and so on. For a priest living by himself out in the country, it was the ideal gift. It meant easier meal preparation and fewer dishes to wash.

Is that what Jesus intends to say when he tells Martha in Sunday’s Gospel story, Lk 10:38-42: “There is need of only one thing”? Is he trying to reduce her workload? Does he want her to prepare only one dish and not many? After all, he has just told her: “You are anxious and worried about many things.” What is the “only one thing” Jesus has in mind?

It might help if we place the Gospel story in context. For the past few Sundays, we have heard a continuous reading of the Gospel of Luke, with only a few verses omitted here and there. The theme of hospitality has marked each of those passages.

For example, on July 1, we saw Jesus beginning his journey to Jerusalem, during which he encounters a lack of hospitality: “On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his reception there, but they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem.”

Then, on July 8, we heard Jesus give instructions to his disciples on how they should receive the hospitality offered to them. “Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you.”

Last Sunday, Jesus told a parable which featured the hospitality shown by a Samaritan to a stranger: “Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him.”

It should not surprise us that this Sunday’s Gospel reading also continues the theme of hospitality. Instead of hearing Jesus speak about hospitality or tell stories about it, we see Jesus receiving an example of it. He is visiting the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha lavishes hospitality upon Jesus, so much so that she complains about the lack of help that her sister Mary is giving her. And how does Jesus react?

He criticizes her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Martha has meticulously lived up to the demands of hospitality, but she has missed the point of why a person should offer hospitality to Jesus. As Jesus said earlier: “Whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” That is to say, whoever rejects Jesus rejects God.”

Conversely, whoever receives Jesus receives God. Whoever receives Jesus needs to listen to him speak, and not allow household tasks to interfere. Ultimately, hospitality toward Jesus has a profoundly religious purpose, which goes beyond satisfying the expectations of etiquette. It’s not a matter of keeping up with the Joneses.

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