The Hospitality Trap

Some time ago, when I was a young boy, my family and I were returning home from a summer visit to my grandparents.  Something unexpected happened to the car as we were riding home in the dark of that moonless night.  I don’t remember if it was a flat tire or if we ran out of gas, or what it was….but it rendered us stranded along the lake road at least 10 miles from home.  We were terrified.  My younger siblings began to cry and it was then that my mother informed my father that she was taking the kids—all 6 of us—down the country road in the dark, back half a mile or so where she remembered seeing a house.  It was late, sometime around midnight I think, so we warily walked the shoulder of the road back to the small country house and banged on the door.  There were no lights on in the house and just as we were about to turn and leave, an older woman opened the door to us.  We told her what had happened to us, that our car had broken down a little ways down the road, and she graciously opened her home to us.  She invited us in, showed my father to the telephone so he could call for help, and then proceeded to bring refreshments and snacks out to us kids, who were by now watching late night television on her black and white set.

 As it turned out, people often broke down in the vicinity of her house, but since she was a widow, she didn’t often open the door after dark.  She told us that when she saw my mother with all of us kids in tow, she didn’t feel afraid to open the door.  Although we were anxious to get home to our own beds, it was a blessing to be on the receiving end of a stranger’s hospitality—someone we knew we would never see again.  If you’re a woman alone, living a good 10 miles from the nearest town, you ought to be careful about opening your door to strangers. It is not always easy to be on the giving end of hospitality.

You’ve heard the story of Mary and Martha’s house-the story about women who opened their door to strangers and got surprised.

Here’s another story.  A retired woman I knew, Jeanne, had a room in her home that was always made up to welcome strangers.  There was a bed, a dresser, an attached bathroom, and a closet that had an ample supply of towels and toiletries.  Jeanne was one of those “pro life” women who believed in walking her talk.  She would take in pregnant girls or young women who were, for whatever reason, homeless, and she would nurture them and take them to their prenatal doctor visits and become their friend.  She was not rich, she did not live in the best part of town, but she in her living room was an entire wall of photos of the women and children she had midwife through a terrifying and lonely time in their lives.  Jeanne and her husband, Don, devoted their lives to the proposition that it was not enough to be against abortion: one had to be FOR something, one had to be truly FOR life.  As a result of her reputation, people were always sending young women to her for care.  And that spare bedroom was almost always available for someone to come live with them. 

Sometimes the women stole from her.  Sometimes personal items would disappear from the home and the expectant mother would return to the gang from which she had temporarily escaped, or she would return home to an abusive relationship.  None of that dampened Jeanne’s spirits or impacted her resolve to help women in trouble.  Some would later return with money or gifts, all of which Jeanne would recycle into baby clothes or formula or diapers for her enormous personal stash she kept in her home for needy mothers.  She always declined personal gifts, “What on earth could you give me, a woman who has everything in this world?” she would ask.

Then there’s that couple of sisters, Mary and Martha, who live over in Bethany. Mary, who loves to sit around and talk about great ideas, and Martha, who loves to entertain and have big dinner parties and make desserts from scratch. Jesus is on the road traveling and Martha invites him in for a big meal.

Just last week Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan to a lawyer, where a man, on his way to Jericho, falls among thieves. They beat him up, leave him “half dead.” Now, two men come down the road: a priest and a Levite. They both pass by without helping. A Samaritan, a lousy Samaritan (and you can change this word to whatever works for you, “black man”, “illegal Mexican”, “gay man with HIV”, etc…) was the only one who stopped and helped the suffering stranger, bandaging him, risking his own life for the life of the wounded stranger. “Go, do likewise,” says Jesus.

So maybe Martha heard that story of the good Samaritan and took it to heart. Here is Jesus, out on the road. “Come on over,” she says. “In two hours I’ll whip you up the best kosher meal you ever ate.” See? Martha is doing what Jesus said to do. She has gone and “done likewise”-received this hungry, needy stranger into her house. She’s in there working like a dog (before the days of Kenmore or Cuisinart). But there’s her sister Mary, lounging at the feet of Jesus as he explains to her the finer points of the domination-free Reign of God.  It’s shocking because women aren’t allowed to sit at the feet of a teacher and learn anything…they’re supposed to be serving, yes, listening as a disciple, no.

“Hey,” says Martha, wiping her Palmolive hands on her apron, “Jesus, how about putting that sister of mine in her place, and have her get in here and help me?

Jesus explains: “Doing is okay, but there’s a lot to be said for listening, and Mary knows.”.

He spoke these tough words to busy Martha just a few verses after he took his sharp left turn toward Jerusalem (9:51). This strange man of God that Martha invited to dinner has a cross on his back. He’s on his way to Jerusalem to confront the powers that be.  What’s more, opening your door to Jesus, asking him in, is not just a matter of fixing up a few nice things for the preacher. It’s a matter of Martha taking up her cross as well, which is another way of saying changing your consciousness.  God has a sneaky way of getting us to change when we let him in.  God’s intrusions are never harmless. You can almost hear Martha say, “Look, all I wanted was a little food, some stimulating conversation.  We were supposed to have a nice evening, a little activist talk, maybe organize a food drive for the less fortunate, sort through some old clothes to donate to the poor. You have to go spoil everything by getting so serious!  It suddenly feels like this meal is going to cost me something!”

Opening our door to God always has consequences.  This is not some deity made in our own image that we can have over for a chat.  Neither is this some distant God who is content to observe the workings of the world from some safe cosmic distance.  This is the God who breaks into our history, the God who has a radical plan for us.  Break bread at the table of the living God; you never know how you’ll be surprised.

Martha opened her door to a divine intrusion. Surely it was true that conventional rabbis did not go to a single woman’s house, much less waste their wisdom in teaching women. But look at Jesus. Jesus makes Mary and Martha disciples. Jesus will not spoon feed them, patronize them with innocuous religious platitudes. He doesn’t tell them that they will be saved through bearing children and serving their husbands.  He gives the truth of his way to them with an open heart, without bias, without distinction.

“Get out of the kitchen, listen, learn and follow me,” he says.

Martha, like her sister, also receives a gift, but not the gift Martha expected. Like Mary, she too is taken seriously, given opportunity to be a full disciple of the one who proclaims the intruding, barrier-breaking, living God. Having knocked on the doors of their hearts, he knocks down the barriers that have separated these women from the grace and power of God.

So here’s my advice to you today: Be careful to whom you open your door, and with whom you sit at table. Every Sunday, when the wine is poured and the bread is broken at the altar, we risk encountering this same barrier-breaking, justice-loving God whose intrusions turn everything upside down, changing everything.

I have a strong belief that right now, in all our lives, there is a knock at the inner door.  There is a stranger outside, waiting for the door to open a bit…that tug of conscience, that call of the heart, that opportunity you see to serve someone in need, that quiet, persistent knocking….it could be you-know-who.

“Behold, I stand at the door,” he says.

We have to decide.  Do we let him in?  Why not?  What harm could he do?


About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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