During the fifties in the north of England where I grew up, it was usual for neighbours to drop in for a chat at any time. Over a cup of tea they would exchange gossip and tell you what was worrying them. In other parts of England, people are not so easy-going but when we deny ourselves the company of others in our homes it’s not just the news and the tea we miss. The Old Testament reading today is about that extra something Abraham gets from being a hospitable host. He and his wife, Sarah, are very old and have no children. There they are, living their own lives and minding their own business, when three men appear out of nowhere, the archetypal uninvited visitors. Abraham welcomes them warmly and Sarah produces a lavish meal. Abraham enjoys their company and learns from them something he would never have dreamt of, that when these strangers return in the spring, he and his wife would have a son.
These men were angels and in Old Testament stories angels indicate the presence and action of God. In fact so closely are these three men linked with God that the writer changes from speaking of three men to talking of the Lord. Abraham, in welcoming these strangers, unknowingly invited God into his home. You would think he had been reading the letter to the Hebrews, Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. (13:2) Expressed in modern parlance, it implies that in showing hospitality we can encounter the divine.
Today’s gospel reading presents a similar situation where Martha welcomes a travelling preacher into her home and she busies herself playing the perfect host. Her sister, Mary, doesn’t seem to be any help at all but sits with the stranger, listening to his teaching. At this point the two sisters are unaware that their guest is the Son of God so, like Abraham, they are entertaining angels unawares. Martha is annoyed that Mary is no help and points out that her sister is neglecting the duties of a host. But Jesus reminds her that being hospitable means not only providing refreshment for your guests but also includes conversing with them and listening to them. Otherwise the hospitality is the kind you get in hotels which has nothing personal about it.
So instead of getting indignant on Martha’s behalf because Mary is letting her do all the work, we should rather be admiring Mary's wisdom in recognising that their guest is something more than he appears to be. She recognises that listening to what Jesus has to say holds the key to what her life is all about. This encounter with Jesus is as much a life-changing event as Abraham's encounter with the three angels. Both are encounters with God. One leads to the founding of a nation into which God’s Son will be born. The other is part of the founding of a Church by that same God, which will enable its members to have a direct relationship with his Son.
Today’s readings tell us that dialogue between people is of vital importance. It is through people and our interaction with them that God speaks to us and acts in the world. The guests you have in your house may be the means by which God is changing your life through them, and it can also be that he is using you to change their lives. In the gospels it is always the chance meetings with Jesus that change lives. He meets ordinary working men and they become his apostles. He meets a blind man and he sees in every sense of the word. He comes across a widow mourning the death of her only son and he brings life back into her existence.
In following Jesus we are asked to complete his work. As St. Paul tells us today: I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. It is our responsibility as members of the Church to continue and complete the work of Christ. When we are hospitable to people, giving them of our time, then that work is nearer to completion and the kingdom that much closer than before.