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?

9 Replies to “2: what hospitality isn’t (mary and martha)”

  1. Thanks Lucy! I have always felt very well cared-for at your house. I pray you get some opportunities to be shown hospitality by all of us too. I would love to be more Mary than Martha. I have a to-do list on my phone and a permanent item on it is the words of Luke 10:41-42 – because I need daily reminding that no other item on the list can be as important as spending time with JC!

  2. Oh Izzy that’s a brilliant idea! Thanks – I think I’m going to steal it! I have a to-do list on my phone too (hangover from teaching days, perhaps?!), and it can become all-consuming, so the idea of putting time with JC (and that verse) on it is brilliant. Ta! x

  3. Amen to that Lucy!

    Our house was never pristine even before the kids came along, but in you wait until your house is perfect….then you’ll never have anyone round!

    I can honestly say, that I have never been to someones house for dinner, and left saying “did you see the dust on their bookcase?”. It’s the company that counts! (and the yummy food of course!)

    1. Absolutely! It’s comforting, isn’t it, to know that actually when you’re invited to someone’s house, the honour and the privilege of receiving hospitality (particularly, perhaps, in a culture where it doesn’t happen ordinarily) far outweighs the awareness of what their home looks like!
      (PS our house wasn’t pristine pre-kids either! But even worse now!)

  4. I love your posts Lucy, they always make me think! I loved coming round for a cuppa in my student days, you always made me feel so welcome! I love having people over at my house but I sometimes get so caught up in the presentation, everything must be clean, the cake must be self-made etc. ……..when actually none of that matters! To open your home is to open your heart. After all, we can never be sure when Jesus will return and I doubt he’ll let us clean up a bit first. He takes us as we are and maybe I need to just let others do the same!? x

    1. I love this connection, Dani – thanks for pointing it out. I so rarely think of that day when Jesus returns, and that hospitality may have more to do with it than we think… I also think that the increase in good-quality ready-meals/ready-made-cakes available in recent years is one of God’s real blessings to our hospitality – now there’s no excuse for us to feed others, whatever our own level of culinary ability!!

  5. Hi Lucy. I love this blog (as I do all of your writng). It is so filled with perception and discernment about the true nature of hospitality. I very much agree with Danielle (previous post) that “to open your home is to open your heart”. As a first hand recipient of the care and hospitality of your parents-in-law over so many years (and embraced by the rest of the family) I can testify to the healing power of this grace-fiiled giving, which has been extended to so many over the years. It is so healing and “reaches the parts” i.e. the soul from which other forms of “entertaining” can be so removed. It provides a “warts and all” acceptance of the person and demonstrably reveals the love of Christ. Looking forward to the next installment (and to the book!), lots of love, Brenda (aka Martha). xxxxxx

  6. Thanks Brenda, your testimony is (as always) very powerful on this front. Al and I are very lucky to have such great role models in our own parents, aren’t we? They teach us so much about Christ-like hospitality.

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