There is nothing left now of the Oaks of Mamre; the place all tarmac and housing. There is not much left of the Byzantine Church there, commemorating the meeting of Abraham with the Lord in the three men. Today, only the hot dust of Hebron's streets and the smell of cooking falafels could lead our thoughts to the past scene at Abraham's tent; when, in the 'heat of the day' he offered shelter, meat and drink to some strangers travelling through the desert.
Yet, there is a deeper connection we can make, beyond imagination. Providing rest and nourishment is still the mark of generosity because it is a response to the most fundamental needs of others. 'Hospitality' is such an overused word that its true meaning has been cheapened. In this act of charity we recognise our guests' dependence on us and in turn our own reliance upon others. 'It is not good for man to be alone' (Genesis 2.18). And humbly acknowledging this transforms us -- it is Abraham who feels grateful for his act of service:
When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, 'My lord, if I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by your servant.'
It is only in this spirit of reliance and humility that we can go on to accept that most difficult of truths. No one is independent, except God. And the most basic dependence of humanity rests on him.
Martha's hospitality to Jesus is beginning this humbling process. Having received her Lord into her house she wants to serve him and provide all he needs. She recognises his human dependence and her role in charity. But is her generosity motivated by her pride in being the provider? Her indignation towards her sister certainly takes the edge off the atmosphere of welcome. Does she acknowledge her own needs?
Christ's solidarity with us in our needful humanity goes hand in hand with the sovereignty of his divinity. Here, in the tired and hungry Jesus is the provider himself; just as at Mamre in the three desert travellers is the Lord of all. Martha seeks to give peace to the source of peace. 'Come to me all you who labour and are heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest' (Matthew 11.28).
Mary the sister of Martha seems to recognise her need for Jesus. His words and his company give her more than she could give to him. More than they provide for his needs, their guest provides Mary and Martha with the one thing that is needful: the beginnings of a relationship with God. And this relationship with Jesus is based upon a humble acceptance of the fact that we need him. And all we can do for him is be grateful and give ourselves to thanksgiving.
But just as our experience of being the host should encourage us to recognise our own dependence, so this acceptance of Jesus's love should flow back into our relationships with others.
It is not that Martha does wrong in serving her guest, nor that Mary is perfectly justified in leaving her sister to do all the work. Rather, it is the attitude towards their roles in respect of Jesus that causes the scene between the three of them. Everything given to Jesus at dinner, food, drink, even Mary's attention, is all a gift of God, the God who has come to their table.
In every Mass this meal with Jesus is experienced. We engage in conversation and hear his teaching; we offer him food and drink. Yet it is Jesus who gives this to us and what is more, the food and drink is his flesh and blood given for the life of the world.
'Let me fetch a morsel of bread' asks father Abraham. 'Do as you have said' replies the Lord, 'but remember, it is I who give you the true bread that comes down from heaven'.