The visit of the three men to Abraham and Sarah, the story of them entertaining angels unawares, is a story that might be told as a way of encouraging hospitality. Indeed, the story has often been used in that way. Be careful how you treat your guests, the story-teller says, for you may end up entertaining angels unawares. Hospitality is a very important virtue in every culture but it was perhaps especially so among the Jews.
If we take the story of Martha and Mary to be about priorities, then in the light of the status of hospitality in Jewish culture this story is very shocking, for it then says that sitting and listening to Jesus is more important even than the very important duty of hospitality to guests.
And read this way, we could compare it to another story in Matthew, equally shocking, where an unnamed woman anoints Jesus with ointment costing a year's wages and Jesus approves this, saying effectively that preparing him for his burial in this way was more important than helping the poor. Both stories, then, underline the importance of Jesus in a dramatic way.
Down the centuries, monks have often used the story of Martha and Mary as a way of explaining the great importance of monastic life. They took Martha and Mary as types of the active and the contemplative lives respectively, and Jesus' words to be a judgment in favour of the contemplative life.
Read in this traditional way, the story tells us something very important for our own times, that prayer and the contemplation of Jesus in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist can be just as important, even more important, than activity. It is a real struggle in the modern life to escape the bustle of the (often good) things which fill our days, and find time to sit at Jesus' feet.
But there is another thread which binds together these two stories, of Abraham and Sarah and the angels and of Martha, Mary, and Jesus. It becomes visible by seeing how important hospitality is after all.
For at the centre of our Christian lives is an act of hospitality, not indeed of our hospitality to others but of God's hospitality to us. Jesus invites us as guests to a meal at which he is the host and also the food which is served.
In the light of that central fact, we can then see the two stories as being strange reversals of the ordinary order. Jesus is a guest in the house of Martha, but it is Mary who finds her home at Jesus' feet and is fed by his words. Abraham and Sarah receive the three men and show their generosity to their guests, but the men are there to bring God's generosity to them.
This way of reading the story of Martha and Mary emphasises not Martha's inattentiveness but her lack of reliance on Jesus. She sees the situation as one of her household showing hospitality to Jesus, of welcoming him properly into her home, whereas Mary rightly sees that she must make her home with him, at his feet, listening to his words.
Understood like that, the story is not about an opposition of activity and contemplation, for Christians have always seen that prayer and activity should not be opposed. Dominic wanted his friars to develop a cloister of the heart, a way of carrying contemplation with you whatever you are doing. The idea was to pray constantly - not by spending life on your knees but by making of every part of life a prayer.
Choosing the better part, the part of Mary, is not about finding a place in your life for God, but about cooperating with God in his finding a place in his life for us, a place at Jesus' feet, nourished by his word.