2: what hospitality isn’t (mary and martha)

This is part of a mini-series on hospitality. Click on the ‘Hospitality’ tab at the top of the page to read the other posts. If you’re encouraged or challenged by it, please consider sharing it with someone you think would appreciate it too. Thank you!

So we’ve looked at the reasons to take hospitality seriously. But many of us run from the notion of hospitality because we have the wrong idea of what it actually is. We think that because we can’t cook (or don’t like to), because we don’t have a spare room, because our furniture is all hand-me-downs and things-that-don’t-match, because our kids are really noisy, because Nothing Ever Gets Cleaned, because it’s not actually my house, then hospitality just isn’t for us. There are other people called to do this, but not us.

I love the story of Mary and Martha. Primarily, I love it because each time I read it, it slaps me round the face like a block of ice. We have these two sisters, going about their daily business, and then Jesus calls in. Of all the guests! And just at the wrong time too. The bread hasn’t been baked, the kitchen floor’s a mess, the washing up is stacked high, and piles of clothes cover all the seats. It’s on the tip of Martha’s tongue to suggest that perhaps Jesus should go and see a different friend, and then call back later. No – of course, that would be rude. Well perhaps we can just keep him on the doorstep – no, that wouldn’t do at all. We are Jewish, after all – known for our hospitality. OK, well let’s just invite him in and get the place clean and tidy as soon as we can.

But that frustrating sister! Why doesn’t she help? It’s alright for her, sitting and having a nice chat, but there’s work to be done, and Muggins here appears to be flying solo. No one has detected my gritted teeth as I scrub the living daylights out of the floor, so maybe it’s time to step it up a notch. I’ll start sweeping right where they’re sitting. That’ll do it. Mary’s got to offer some help now.

Er…excuse me? Come and sit? With a filthy house and a to-do list as long as my arm? You’re telling me to just sit? …

I am Martha. I mean – not the housework bit, obviously. (Have you seen my home?) But I am task-driven, prone to losing focus of what’s important. The point usually made by this story is how important Jesus is, that spending time with him should be central to our lives. But there’s an equally salient point – and that is that hospitality is not about everything being perfect.

I’ve noticed that, outside the church, the word ‘hospitality’ is rarely used in a domestic context. You might hear it in a phrase like ‘the hospitality industry’, denoting commercial hospitality which is profit-making, but otherwise the more common word to use when having people over is ‘entertaining’. And that word says it all: when someone comes over, you’re an entertainer, putting on a show, trying to make things as good as they possibly can be. This word has infiltrated our minds so much that considering Biblical hospitality requires a major mind-shift. Biblical hospitality is not about entertaining others to make ourselves/our home/our cooking look good – in fact, it’s about the direct opposite: it’s about being vulnerable enough to share our weaknesses with others.

Courtesy of the darling CofE, we get to live in a house much larger than any we’ve ever inhabited before. So it’s really been no surprise to us that, since moving here, God has asked more of our hospitality than we’ve ever given before. But He’s asked it at a time when our home has been the messiest and dirtiest it’s ever been, when we’re the busiest and most exhausted we’ve ever been. Yep, just when our life becomes more manic with the arrival of two kids, God decides now would be an excellent time to play open house. Thanks, God.

When someone enters our home, they find us as we are: in the middle of bathtime, running around catching up with jobs, baking cakes for toddler groups, yelling at the kids – with all the dust, crumbs and pen-on-the-carpet that goes with that. Occasionally (very), we are an oasis of calm: kids in bed, downstairs tidied, dust hidden with cards and photo frames. But this doesn’t last long. Deception is not an option when you’re opening your home.

The point is that what hospitality isn’t is entertaining. It’s not about showing off. It’s not about a perfect home that makes others envious.

But it is about sharing our lives with each other. It’s about welcoming someone into our mess, so that they can feel reassured about their own. It’s about forging those deep friendships which only happen when we take off our masks – masks which are easy to wear when out and about, but trickier to uphold in our own homes, where real life is lived and real mistakes are made.

I also need to point out that hospitality isn’t just about housing the homeless either. When Al and I had conversations about being hospitable a few years ago, I would feel a little despondent over how difficult it seemed to be to meet actual need through hospitality – homeless people weren’t knocking on our door, drug addicts weren’t coming over for a meal – just our nice, middle-class friends and acquaintances, who all seemed to be doing very well, thank you. I will expand more on this in a future post, but for now I want to say that what I’ve been learning over the last few years is how hospitality is always needed, however sorted your life is. A student may be from a fairly affluent background, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not craving family, a decent meal, or a comfy sofa, whilst away from home. A friend may have a happy home and work life, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t need a listening ear, an encouragement in her faith, or a rest from cooking.

Martha wasn’t keen to forget the state of her house. Mary was. She had it right – to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen. We may not be opening our home to Jesus (although Matthew 25 tells us that when we give to those in need, it’s as if we’re doing it for Jesus), but anyone who steps through the front door has a story to tell, advice to give, problems to share, needs to pray for. We will learn immeasurably by sitting at the feet of our guests, and simply listening. And we may never know what they gain from spending some time in our homes. Perhaps they will feel immeasurably loved and valued for the first time in a while, perhaps immeasurably needed where they’ve experienced rejection in the past, perhaps immeasurably drawn towards a Saviour who took the initiative in opening His kingdom to us.

Dare we believe that our hospitality might make this much impact? Or will we keep our tiny minds fixated on the state of our homes?


How do you view hospitality?

Do you find hospitality an effort or a joy?

1: why open our homes?

I have been itching to get into this series for weeks! What can I say – life has overtaken blog recently. Apologies! This is part one of eight (ish), and the aim is that none of the posts will be very long. Hopefully, however, there’ll be some challenge in them, and an opportunity for debate. To this end, please do add your comments/experience so that we can make this a dialogue. Also, if you know of anyone who might appreciate this series, please do share it with them. To the best of my knowledge, hospitality is not an area which is spoken of very much in evangelical circles*, so I think it’d be good to get a conversation going! (* Some of the more liberal writings on Christian hospitality are excellent, and I’ve found them very helpful in the past. This is not a bash at liberals, just a plea for the subject to be dealt with by a range of Christian thinkers!)

So, to start at the very beginning, why do it? Why open our homes to others?

1) It’s a command found in Scripture. Permeating the New Testament are constant directives to “practise hospitality” (Romans 12:13),  “show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2), “offer hospitality to one another without grumbling (1 Peter 4:9) and so on. There are many, many examples throughout the Old and New Testaments of people showing hospitality (think Rahab, the Shunammite woman  and pretty much the whole book of Acts for starters). Even if we had no other reason to do so, the fact that offering hospitality runs so blatantly through the story of the Bible would be enough to make us take it seriously. But we have plenty of reasons – like, for example:

2) It’s an expression of grace. Grace is giving without expecting to receive back. Grace is a free gift which we haven’t worked for, or don’t necessarily ‘deserve’. Of course, the ultimate expression of grace was in what Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection, and anything we offer is a pretty dim reflection of this – but hospitality is perhaps one of the clearer ways that we can reflect God’s grace. It makes an impact – possibly more than several sermons on the subject. Hospitality says “You’re welcome in our home – and we’re not asking anything in return. We value you enough to use our stuff, eat our food, sit on our sofa, play with our kids, smash our mugs. You’re worth our effort.” In fact, the grace element of hospitality is so important that Jesus even told us to make a special effort to invite those who can’t repay us (Luke 14:12-14).

3) It allows us to become family to one another. Jesus taught and demonstrated the importance of loving one another, and looking out for the marginalized, the lonely, the outcast and those on the edge of society. Paul stressed church unity in pretty much all of his letters. And it doesn’t take a genius to realise that we live in a fragmented society today, too. Being friendly to people at church, or work, or a community group is one thing – but does that help someone who may be on their own for the rest of the week? Someone who is too shy to take the initiative to make friends? Someone who is insecure because of their background or current situation? Inviting others into our space allows us the time to really get to know each other – including getting to know how we can support one another better. The thing is, you often never really know the impact your hospitality is having on someone until much later – or perhaps you never will. But be very sure that the small (or sometimes large) inconveniences of offering hospitality will have a massively positive impact on someone who is struggling.

4) It builds trust and understanding. Frequently in Scripture we are told ‘not to gossip’ (Romans 1, 2 Corinthians 12, James 3). I’ve always found this fascinating, as I have a very stereotyped idea of gossipers – mainly women, not unlike myself, who enjoy having a natter and might occasionally/regularly slip into something not entirely true about someone else. So I’ve wondered why a fair amount of Biblical space is given to women who chat over the fence, or those of us who indulge in celebrity magazines. But really gossip is anything we say which is founded on presumption, or hearsay, or judgement – anything which isn’t fact and could bring someone else down. As we invite others into our home, the person we thought was offhand, or selfish, or often made the wrong decisions, suddenly becomes someone we empathise with, someone we understand and start to trust. And it’s reciprocal. Al and I have started inviting members of our new church family round for Sunday lunches, with an ambitious aim of eventually getting round everyone. We want to get to know others – properly, not just over a 10-minute coffee chat after a service – but we also want them to get to know us: to see how we function, to see our home, to meet our kids, and learn a bit more about us. We want to earn their trust as Al embarks on leading this congregation in the near future. And – forgive me if I’m pushing the sentiment too far – but with misunderstandings and disagreement happening in the church at the highest level, perhaps hospitality can encourage church unity from the bottom up.

There are many more reasons why hospitality is so important (why not add some below?), but these are four key Biblical justifications as to why we can’t ignore the subject.

* Which reasons (above or any others) have been key to your understanding of hospitality?