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 | by Sean O’Neill

Hospitality: The elusive gift

The feast of Sts. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus falls on July 29. These three were the intimate friends of Jesus, the kind of friends he could relax with at Bethany, where they had their home. It is intriguing to imagine the inner workings of those relationships each time Jesus arrived in Bethany at “the last homely house,” as it were, exhausted from the work of his mission, worn out from the long hours of healing ministry under the merciless Middle Eastern sun, parched and perhaps a little hoarse from preaching to the multitudes and to his disciples. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus would have known of his arrival sometime before and have made preparations to welcome him. The door of the house would have swung wide for him. They would have embraced Jesus warmly and led him to his favorite comfortable chair. Food would be served, perhaps some best-loved dish would have been laid before him.

We can get an inkling of the dynamic from the account in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 10, when Martha complains that she is left with all the chores, while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus listening. Jesus’ reply gives us the key to what true hospitality is: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Lk 10:41-42)

The “better part” of hospitality is not simply doing chores and preparing dinner. True hospitality involves focusing on the individual, on the guest who has come to your home to relax and spend time with you. This is an aspect of hospitality that is probably rarely thought of. We have some friends round for dinner, we ply them with drink, stuff them full of good food, and shoot the breeze. But once they are sated and the breeze has been duly shot, how often do we take the time to ask them how they are doing? Are we so caught up in frivolous banter or intellectual discussion that we forget to focus on the person in front of us? Jesus showed us this focus on loving the individual when he washed the feet of his disciples; such an intimate sign of love and putting the other first.

Coming from an ostensibly more traditional Celtic culture, my parents taught me by example the essence of good hospitality — the personal touch. What did I learn? Here are some key nuggets, which I provide, gratis, from my parents’ (relentless) hoard of wisdom:

Always put the other first; welcome guests at the front door; take their jacket or coat; show them where the bathroom is; offer them a drink; offer them food; serve them — don’t tell them to “help themselves”; in conversation, ask them questions to show you’re interested in them; turn the TV off; see them to the door when they leave. And we can probably add the most modern measure, which they would never have had to deal with: turn off your cell phone.

Some people may have what almost amounts to a charismatic gift of hospitality and don’t need such guidance. But most of the rest of us probably did not grow up with a set of ready-made rules in this area. 

Hospitality, at its best, is a form of love, service-love. Ultimately it is a way in which we can pass on to others the love that we have received from Our Lord. In a sense, it can be a tool for evangelization and even healing. And it can be practiced by anyone. Yes, we might not obey all the “rules” of hospitality, but focusing our attention and love on the guests we have invited to spend time with us goes a long way towards fostering nourishing, enriching, and enduring relationships, especially with fellow Christians. After all, as the great apostle Peter tells us in his first letter, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” (1 Pt 4:7-10)

Hospitality is also a way in which we can support each other in our path toward holiness. For, just as Jesus spoke what was in his heart to his closest friends, we too may find that the love we share through hospitality may open up vistas of deeper relationships with fellow travelers on the road to heaven.

In times that are increasingly hostile to the gospel, we need all the support we can get to continue our walk with the Lord. Hospitality is one of the key ways in which we can bolster our hope, encourage each other to persevere, and provide a refuge from the world. And, incidentally, did I mention it is also terrific fun!

Sts. Martha, Mary and Lazarus, pray for us.