Sunday, October 10, 2010



This past Tuesday the mass lectionary presented us with Luke’s story of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary. (I reflected on this story in a post on March 2, 2009 from a slightly different angle.) I always try to avoid getting drawn into a fight between the two sisters (“Without Martha they’d all go hungry” and so on). It’s clear that the sisters represent the two necessary elements of hospitality, so there’s no need to make the two approaches opposed to each other; the two sisters have to learn to live in harmony under the same roof. The story does, however, offer us an insight or two about hospitality.

This time my reflection is based on the fact that the NT Greek words for “to welcome” and “to offer hospitality” have nothing to do with giving things or doing things for the guest. The root verb at work is, in fact, “to receive.”

Doesn’t this change the perspective a lot? “Receiving” or “accepting” a guest seems to imply that the more important part of hospitality is to pay attention to the guest, to enjoy his or her presence, and to listen to him or her. In the story of Martha and Mary Jesus points up this aspect of hospitality, turning the emphasis from providing a service to receiving a gift. Here is the story as Luke tells it:

As they continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her." (Lk 10:38-42)

I agree with Luke Timothy Johnson in his commentary on this passage: “Jesus’ response to Martha makes it clear that the ‘one thing necessary’ for hospitality is attention to the guest, rather than a domestic performance.” (Sacra Pagina, Vol 3, p. 175)


Saint Benedict’s Rule is famous for its emphasis on hospitality, especially in Chapter 53 “The Reception of Guests.” In the very title “The Reception of Guests” Benedict tips his hand: the emphasis is going to be on “receiving” guests rather than on “entertaining” them. Here are the first few verses from that chapter:

All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35). Proper honor must be shown to all, especially to those who share our faith (Gal 6:10) and to pilgrims.
Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love. First of all, they are to pray together and thus be united in peace, but prayer must always precede the kiss of peace because of the delusions of the devil.
All humility should be shown in addressing a guest on arrival or departure. By a bow of the head or by a complete prostration of the body, Christ is to be adored because he is indeed welcomed in them. After the guests have been received, they should be invited to pray; then the superior or an appointment brother will sit with them. The divine law is read to the guest for his instruction, and after that every kindness is shown to him. The superior may break his fast for the sake of a guest, unless it is a day of special fast which cannot be broken. The brothers, however, observe the usual fast. The abbot shall pour water on the hands of the guests, and the abbot with the entire community shall was their feet. After the washing they will recite this verse: God, we have received your mercy in the midst of your temple.
Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received
Chapter 53, vv. 1-15 (The Rule of St. Benedict, Timothy Fry, O.S.B. ed., 1981, Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN, pp. 255-257 )

I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting phrases that show that Benedict’s emphasis is on “receiving” guests as Christ rather than on “entertaining” them. Guests are valued because they are a special presence of Christ, and are thus to be welcomed with great joy and respect.


These lessons from Luke and St. Benedict seem to me to be worth considering when you're inviting someone into your home as a guest.

Sometimes I’ll visit a family and, unless I sit in the kitchen (which is sometimes a great idea) I will never get to talk to the mother because she'll spend the whole time in the kitchen cooking this wonderful dinner. Then I’ll visit a different family and the mother will sit and visit and trade stories; then she’ll say “Excuse me; I just need a couple of minutes to put out supper. I kept it simple so that I could visit with you instead of spending the whole time cooking.”

As a guest, I'll trade the complicated dinner for the personal conversation every time. Am I missing something? Any of you cooks want to comment? What's your approach either as a guest or as a hostess or host?'




1 comment:

  1. As a host that enjoys conversation as much as good food, I try to have things ready before guests arrive. If some procedures require last minute steps, I always invite the guests to help or at least be with me. On the whole I agree that human interaction trumps culinary perfection.