Martha and Mary: Attentive Hospitality

Revd Clare Hayns
Trinity 5C
A sermon for Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford on 16th July 2022

Genesis 18.1-10
Luke 10. 38-end

Diego VelázquezChrist in the House of Martha and Mary   (I love how grumpy Martha looks here!)

‘It’s not fair’

Last night I went to a milestone birthday party for my sister who’s 2 1/2 years younger than me. We are now the best of friends but our childhood consisted of almost constant arguments. I was the oldest of four and considered myself to be the one who was always expected to be helpful, to lay the table, to help my mother in the kitchen, to be responsible (I’m not sure I was particularly, but that was my perception!). My sister had a gift of always being absent when the table needed laying or a job needed to be done. Particularly if there was hosting to be done and just as people were arriving. She was normally to be found hiding away and reading a book, often in the bath where no one could find her, or sitting under a tree writing a poem about her feelings. It drove me mad.

‘it’s not fair’ was my regular refrain. I would often go to my parents and say a similar plea to that of Martha to Jesus:

Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.

Luke 10:40

There’s a lot of hosting going on in both readings from Genesis and Luke. In Genesis three angelic visitors turn up at the tent of Abraham and Sarah. They are on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah and have an important message to impart on their way.

And in Luke’s gospel, Jesus and his no doubt large group of disciples turn up at the home of Martha of Bethany and her sister Mary.

And the hosts spring into action to provide hospitality. Abraham rushes around, he runs to his guests, he runs to the herd, and he ‘hastens’ to give Sarah instructions.

And there’s Martha. Similarly rushing around to provide food for her guests. I love Martha. In my view she’s one of the best female bible characters in the New Testament. She’s feisty and not afraid to speak her mind.  In John’s gospel, it’s Martha who runs to Jesus after her brother Lazarus dies and she rebukes him ‘Lord, if you’d have been here my brother wouldn’t have died’ (John 11.21) She is loved by Jesus, clearly loves him, and feels comfortable with him.

And so when Jesus turns up with all his friends and she’s left alone to do everything because her sister has abandoned her, she doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind.

And can we blame her? We’ve probably all been there at some time or other.

It’s important to remember a couple of things of context here.

What Martha was doing was providing hospitality and welcome, and this was vitally important in the culture of the time. In first-century Palestine, hospitality was (and still is) about allowing the guest to share the sacredness of the family space. The women’s role was (and still is in many households) to do the cooking and food preparation. Martha was doing just what was expected of her.

What was unexpected was what Mary was doing.

It was very unusual for Jewish Palestinian women to join male guests before they are done with all the food preparation. And even more unusual for a woman to be sitting amongst the men in the posture of a disciple.

And can we blame Mary for taking this opportunity to sit with the male disciples and listen to Jesus? It was an unexpected and surprising gift.

But it is this that infuriates her sister the most.

It’s not fair.

And Jesus’ response? He points out her frustration. (rather a brave thing for him to do!)

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

Luke 10.42

It seems as if Jesus is rebuking Martha for doing what was expected of her. The comment ‘the better part’ seems as if Jesus is creating a hierarchy where sitting and listening is ‘better’ than active service.

This has often been how we’ve read this passage. Where the contemplative life is seen as better than the activist life; where the call to a life of prayer as a nun or monk or priest is seen as being more spiritual than the call to being a parent or medic or homemaker.

Is this what Jesus meant by this? I think not.

The word for the ‘many things’, or in other versions ‘many tasks’ that Martha is distracted by is ‘diakonia’: service/ministry. It is where we get the word ‘deacon’ from.  It can mean all sorts of different aspects of ministry, from preparing food to looking after the poor.

Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel those who provide service (Diakonia) are commended. Last week we read of the Good Samaritan who was commended for his active service and the disciples surely had Jesus’ words ‘go and do likewise’ ringing in their ears as they went to Martha’s house. (Luke 10.37) Also, Jesus describes himself as ‘one who serves’.

So it can’t be right that Jesus is criticising Martha for also being one who serves. Or for doing what is essentially ministry.

So what is he saying?

We are told in John’s Gospel that: ‘Jesus Loved Martha’ (John 11.5). And in the context of love that he points out to her the truth.

Martha’s attention was in the wrong place, even if what she was doing was the right thing. Jesus is gently pointing out that her service, her ‘diakonia’, was being done with distraction, worry, and irritation. Her attention was on herself and on Mary not doing what Martha thought Mary should be doing.  

In her distraction, Martha was missing what was important right then.

Jesus was pointing out that what Mary was doing was, at that particular moment in time, was exactly what Mary should have been doing. She was paying attention to Jesus, to the Son of God who was right there in her home.

How often have we been in a conversation when we know we aren’t really focused on it. My kids always know when I’m pretending to listen to them but really my mind is on something else. When I’m talking to them and just saying ‘hm, hm’ – they can tell. They now call me out on it. 

Simone Weil, who was both political activist and contemplative, said that: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’. [1]

Can you remember when someone last sat and listened to you, giving you their full attention, and how that felt?

Paying attention to someone is an act of service, of generosity. It shows that they are of value to you.

Paying attention to God though is even more important. It can literally change our lives.

Sarah (Genesis) was paying attention whilst Abraham rushed about and she heard the angelic visitors telling her she was to have a child. We don’t know what Mary was hearing as she sat listening, but Jesus says it was ‘the better part’ and that ‘it wouldn’t be taken from her’.

I think Sarah and Mary were providing hospitality to their visitors by paying attention to them. What they were doing could be described as attentive hospitality. What Martha was doing was distracted hospitality.

What might attentive hospitality look like in our own lives and in the lives of our churches?

Do we pay attention? To one another, to Jesus.

Or are we so busy doing stuff or being distracted that we don’t notice that Jesus is in our midst, wanting to bless us?

Are we so anxious about what others are doing or not doing, so worried about fairness, that we forget to realise what we are being invited to?

And what are we being invited to?

A loving relationship with Jesus who, like Mary and Martha wants to spend time with us. Who knows and loves us even when we’re distracted and gently draws us back into relationship with him.

Perhaps that’s what we are being invited to, in this time as we head into the holiday season.

What might it be like to give Jesus attentive hospitality?

To put aside all our worries and distractions for a little while.

To respond to the invitation:

 ‘there is need (right now) of only one thing’.  


Author: clarehayns

College Chaplain and Welfare Coordinator of Christ Church, Oxford | Mum of three boys | wife of a juggler and magician | Council of Reference of ZANE - | enjoys board games, dog walking, films, eating out.

6 thoughts on “Martha and Mary: Attentive Hospitality”

  1. Thank you for this, Clare. Much to think about. My take on the Velazquez painting is we see two maidservants, Martha being with Jesus and Mary in the other room. So the older servant says “Jesus says Mary has chosen the better way” and the the young girl says “It would be nice to have a choice!” All good wishes from Ann Bettess.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a wonderful painting isn’t it. Yes, I agree – there wasn’t a lot of choice for these women. It makes me remember all the Afghan girls prevented from education- but I didn’t have time to bring that into the sermon as well.


  2. Wow, Clare, Thank you for this. I want to 🐝 attentive in my hospitality!!! Especially to Jesus. Miss you friend,

    PS: God have mercy on all my dear ones in Europe in this heat.


    Liked by 1 person

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