Holy hospitality

Sometimes I think that the TV show "Blue Bloods" is the best PR the U.S. Catholic church could ask for. In the midst of crime and court drama we get the everyday life of the Reagan family, struggling to do what is right in a world that doesn't lean that way -- and they argue it all out at the dinner table after they say grace.

CEL_July172016.jpgMy guess is that Jesus would be quite comfortable at this blue-collar table where voices are often raised and father doesn't always know best.

Sixteenth Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Genesis 18:1-10a
Psalm 15
Colossians 1:24-28
Luke 10:38-42

Today's readings tell two very different meal stories, both of which reflect on the sacrament of the table. Father Abraham stars in the first as the host who spares absolutely nothing, including his wife's labor, to welcome strangers to his abode.

There is no evident conflict in this scene. Abraham, though surprised by the appearance of unknown wayfarers, immediately lets them know that they can be at home. Inviting them to bathe their feet is the Semitic way of saying, "Stay a while. Mi casa es su casa."

Abraham then goes all out by getting everybody involved in preparing enough of a banquet to serve hundreds of people; the menu includes nearly 80 pounds of bread and up to 700 pounds of meat. (What in the world did he do with the leftovers? Being who he was, he probably invited the servants and neighbors to enjoy the surplus and laugh with him at the announcement that he and Sarah were finally going to have a child of their own.)

Abraham's story reminds us that we never know in what guise God will show up in our neighborhood. Lucky for him that he didn't live in a gated community where the vigilant guards would have turned away the scruffy strangers. No, Abraham's servants were tasked with hospitality rather than security.

In today's other table tale, Luke takes us to the home of Martha and Mary. Here there's no man of the house and there are apparently no servants. Martha is in charge. She does it all: inviting, making the preparations and serving -- a combo of tasks that she's made so overwhelming that she tells Jesus to take her side and get Mary to share the burden.

Here, poor Martha made two big mistakes, not counting disobeying the cultural taboo forbidding an unchaperoned woman to invite a man into her home. (In the Gospel of Luke, that's no more of a problem than is Mary sitting at Jesus' feet as a disciple.)

Martha's major error was to let the menu overshadow the encounter. It's thoroughly understandable that she would have been thrilled at receiving Jesus as a guest, but she misgauged his reason for accepting the invitation. Albeit with very good intentions, Martha was putting on a show, demonstrating her respect by serving well, even as the menu eclipsed the guest. For all her generosity and hard work, it ultimately mattered little who was there because she focused on food.

Meanwhile Mary, apparently quite adept at tuning out her sister's complaints, simply sat and listened to Jesus.

Martha's second mistake was to try to get Jesus to side with her. She should have known better than to try to get him to vindicate her. Nobody ever appealed to Jesus with self-justification and came out unscathed.

Jesus responded to her just as he did to other novice disciples. In effect, he said, "You are not far from the kingdom ... but neither are you there."

Martha got it half-right. Unlike Abraham, who remained with his guests as they ate, or Mary, who chose listening to Jesus instead of fussing over a feast, Martha let agitation about the kitchen cancel out the nourishment that comes from being in Jesus' presence, and he did not hesitate to tell her so.

What are we to make of these readings today? First, they are a reminder to be fully present and generous to whoever comes our way. Abraham shows us that the welcome we offer the stranger is the welcome we offer to God. Martha would probably tell us that she learned that service that is not intensely personal misses the point.

Our meals can be truly sacramental -- signs and experiences of God with us -- when we give our whole selves and openly receive the other. Whether it is at the liturgy, the soup kitchen or the family table, with or without conflict, attentive care for one another is what makes an encounter with another an encounter with God.

In and out of church, breaking bread together can be an experience of communion. We may argue, but we must be sure we are really there together. Jesus taught us to put stock in real presence.

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a historical theologian currently writing the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the United States.]

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