Mary and Martha: On Hospitality

A sermon on Luke 10:38-42 by The Chancellor, Dr Paul Overend

I’ll not demonstrate my ignorance of Jazz today – at this Jazz Eucharist – by commenting sagely on it (though it is tempting for a Chancellor to offer a theological improvisation on any theme). Permit me just to explore today’s gospel with you.

The episode of Mary and Martha is often read with certain interests in mind, which like tinted spectacles colour what is being viewed. Let me illustrate this with two examples from the medieval and reformation periods.

Contemplative life

In medieval spirituality the figures of Martha and Mary were said to represent two types of spirituality, the apostolic life in the world, and the contemplative life of the cloister. The 14th century work, The Cloud of Unknowing [Ch.21] gives a hierarchy of perfection in which a good spiritual life was a life of good deeds. A better life was one of [prayer and] meditation. These are seen in Martha who was busy serving and asks Jesus for help. But the best was a life of contemplation, seen in Mary’s lovingly attentiveness to Jesus. The episode therefore gave legitimacy to the contemplative orders.

Reformation theology

At the Reformation, the account of Mary and Martha was used to promote a Protestant theology of ‘salvation by grace’, critical of Catholic devotional and ascetic practices. The Protestants cited the Letter to the Romans in which St. Paul says, “man is justified by faith, without the works of the law” (Rom 3:28), while Catholics cited the Epistle of James: “see that man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jam 2:24). From a Protestant perspective, Martha was presented as the Catholic concern for salvation by works while Mary represented an openness to grace, and so Jesus’s endorsement of Mary was read as the “better part” taken by Protestants.

Both interpretations read later interests into the text – and so justify the religious and political interests of those interpretations. But if the text is about Martha and Mary offering hospitality, then maybe we should approach the text attentive to this issue of hospitality. Doing so, we find the text doesn’t endorse our interests, but disturbs them and challenges us.

Abraham’s Hospitality

In ancient Israel, hospitality was a moral duty that grew from the nomadic desert experience of the Israelites. The law sanctified hospitality toward the “stranger” (Lev. 19:34). But duties of hospitality were conditional forms of exchange – so, the host should meet the needs of the guest, but guests should not outstay their welcome, for example.

Our first lesson gave an account of Abraham’s hospitality of three guests.

This account is often read in the Christian tradition in terms of the Trinity, as in the icon by Andrei Rublev. As the letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it’ [Heb 13.2] so the guests are portrayed as angels, representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This invites the viewer at the fourth side of the table into loving communion. But this interpretation overlooks what the text was saying about hospitality.

A Jewish reader would see that the hospitality offered exceeds what duty required. Abraham “ran to meet” the three men. He slaughtered an animal while Sarah hastened to prepare the food (Gen. 18:2-7). Their hospitality is more than exemplary! But then a gift from the guests breaks the codes of hospitality. They tell Abraham that Sarah will bear his child. If we continue reading, verses 11-12 say, ‘Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”’

It is not the mentioning of the couple’s infertility that breaches the codes of hospitality, but the call to parenthood, which is both a promise of a child and a call to further hospitality that will turn their senior years upside down. Sarah laughs at the news, but her mockery later turns to joy with the birth of Isaac (and the name Yishaaq means ‘he laughed’). Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (Gen. 21.6).

Invitation / Visitation

This episode introduces two levels of hospitality. There is the moral duty of hospitality to strangers. This is a conditional exchange where hospitality is offered by a sovereign host who is still in charge and the rules are to be respected by the guest. Then there’s the more radical hospitality which receives the unexpected gift of the guest, the promise that puts in question the host’s sovereignty and freedom. The philosopher Jacques Derrida distinguishes these levels of hospitality as invitation, when we’re in charge, and visitation, when we are being changed.(1)

Mary and Martha

Let’s consider the hospitality of Mary and Martha with that distinction of conditional hospitality and radical hospitality, invitation and visitation.

Martha welcomed Jesus, but she complains that her sister is leaving her with the work of hospitality. Given the moral obligations on a host, her point is fair. But Mary is open to friendship and to receiving from Jesus what he had to teach. Where Martha, serves as duty requires, Mary opens her heart to the visitation of the guest and so to her life being transformed by the encounter.

Lessons for us

This distinction has various implications for us. It challenges the political with the ethical in relation to refugees, for instance. The rules of hospitality of refugees require England to provide a safe space. And so, on these terms, Rwanda will do. But shipping the stranger off to another country to provide for

their needs is not to open oneself to being changed by the guest. It refuses to open one’s heart. Radical hospitality would ask, what can we learn from the gift of the presence of refugees if we are open to meeting them as people and to being changed by them.

Or maybe our personal faith can be considered as a form of hospitality. Conditional hospitality would involve making space for God, offer our thanks and praise in worship and give of ourselves in service. But if we are hoping to remain in charge of the relationship keeping God as a guest (if we want to be a sovereign subject serving an objective God), then we limit what we allow God to be or require of us. Radical hospitality is shown in the openness of the prophets’ ‘here I am’ or the Virgin Mary’s ‘let it be to me according to your word.’ This unconditional hospitality is open to a visitation, to being summoned, seduced, and sent. In a faith of radical hospitality, we let go of security and is open to the uncertainty and promise of the future. No longer a sovereign host, we are constituted as responsible, answerable to the other. (2)

When Jesus says Mary has chosen the better part, it is because she has opened her heart to her guest. May we too offer that unconditional hospitality, open that visitation that can transform us.


1) ‘Usually when I refer to hospitality (…), I distinguish between hospitality of “invitation” and hospitality of “visitation.” When I invite someone, I remain the master of the house: “Come, come to me, feel at home,” and so on, “but you should respect my house, my language, my rules, the rules of my nation” and so on. “You are welcome, but under some conditions.” But “visitation” is something else: absolute hospitality implies that the unexpected visitor can come, may come and be received without conditions. It falls upon; it comes; it is an intrusion, an eruption— and that’s the condition of the event.’ Jacques Derrida, Composing “Circumfession”, in John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, (Ed.) Augustine and Postmodernism : confessions and circumfession, Indiana University Press, 2005. p.23.

2) Emmanual Levinas’s work explores this theme.