The Jesus of today’s gospel lesson is the Jesus who is Guest and Host. So when we ask, which one is he, the answer is a resounding “yes,” as it is whenever we ask which one he is in our divine worship – what we celebrate with each other on every Lord’s day, the Lord being present with us.
He will not be either one on anyone’s terms except his own. We come at his invitation. He is Host, where he serves us as guests in his house. And we serve each other, and when we serve the least of his brothers and sisters, he promises that we are doing it to him. We serve him as guest in our house, playing host to him in our bodies, in heart and mind as he dwells in us and dwells with us and among us, in, with, and under our fellowship and service – he is Guest indeed.
He is Host, and we the guest. First and foremost, we must remember this – he is Host first, and we are guest, and his service to us is what we receive in worship. The order of this is what goes wonky when we channel our inner Martha and assume that our efforts are what count when it comes to what pleases the Lord. Faith is the only way to worship. This is the lesson Jesus teaches his friend at Bethany, Martha the sister of Mary. Martha, the woman who welcomed the Lord into her house.
The words that teacher-pastor Luke uses in this snapshot of the Lord at Bethany are a play on words at table – the better portion, the preferred stuff. Ever wrestle over who gets the drumstick at Thanksgiving? My sister and I never did that, but we did fight over who got the last marshmallow from the box of Lucky Charms. That’s what Jesus’ words in this story are playing with – the better portion. It’s what in the home where I grew up belonged to my dad as the man of the house- the biggest piece of chicken or the last purple popsicle. But of course, it’s the stuff that culturally is owed to the guest who’s come to visit. Culturally, I say, if you know what’s what when it comes to xenia, hospitium, hospitality.
Hospitium is the word in Latin, hence our word hospitalilty; it’s what a hospis does, someone plays host to you. Xenia is the word in Greek, hence our English words that begin with xeno- with an x at the beginning: it’s the word for alien, stranger, foreigner, sojourner. Xenon is a strange gas, xenotransplantation is what happens when you get a skin graft or a kidney donation from someone else, and xenophobia is the fear of aliens, strangers, foreigners, the sojourner in your midst.
In southern CA, if someone rings the doorbell and you’re not expecting anyone, you draw the curtains, mute the television, hush the kids, and hide under the bed until who’s ever at the door goes away – you didn’t invite them, you don’t let ’em in! But in ancient Greece and 1stcentury Israel and yes, even certain parts of the world today, if someone shows up unannounced, you have them sit, get their feet washed, bring them some snacks, bring them something to drink – not the cheap stuff either – you clap your hands and your children come out and dance for them, you lay a meal, honor them with a seat and the best portion, and then after those hours are done, then and only then, do you ask, alright, now who are you, where did you come from, and how can we help best get you on your way?
That’s hospitality – but don’t worry – I’ll try to call ahead if I’m coming over. No need to hide. And don’t bother to lay out a spread.
Who is guest and who is host in Bethany? Martha welcomed the Lord, and is getting distracted, irritated, thinking that welcoming puts her in the role of host, and Jesus in the role of short-term guest, someone to impress, someone to serve and slave and labor over, and she’s irritated of course that Mary is doing nothing but sitting at the feet of the Lord. And who is the Lord? Her guest, that’s who! C’mon Mary, up and at ’em, get cracking on the carving, the tapas, the drinks, the entertainment – anything but just sitting there at the feet of your guest, because hospitality requires effort!
Funny that the next two women we hear of in Luke’s account who have an encounter with Jesus are described as sitting at the feet of Jesus. Mary of Magdala, out of whom the Lord expelled seven demons. The woman who wets Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair, the one who is forgiven much because she loves much. Both sitting at the feet of the Lord, both being served by the Lord, with cleansing, with forgiveness. And now Mary of Bethany, the sister of hospitality management major Martha, one more sitting at the feet of the Lord.
Dear sister and brother in Christ, if you want to know what the Word of the Lord is offering you today, you need to ask where Jesus is, look where the Lord is. Where is the Lord? He is in the role, not of guest, but of Host. He’s the one dishing it out, and giving out the portions the way the good host does. And the portions he gives are cleansing and forgiveness. The seat he offers his guest is the choicest of seats, the one at his feet. The only guest who doesn’t get the goods is the one who excludes herself, who excludes himself. Don’t deny the invitation! And the portions he offers to his friends in Bethany are his teaching of the kingdom, the teaching of himself.
Before we blame sister Martha overmuch, let’s remember it’s a real story, a real record of a real event and not just an allegorical opportunity There is a lesson for us. Martha was doing what I like to do at my own house – busy myself in serving people (not to mention impressing them with the fare, the food and drink and partying I like to provide!). There’s nothing evil in what Martha was doing either. But there’s an end to it – the end, the finish line, that says goodbye to a guest, and if that guest is the Lord, what a sad day that would be. A goodbye, farewell, sayonara to Jesus, it’s closing time, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. That would be good hotel management, but that would be abysmal spiritual stewardship. The Lord is not a tenant to be trifled with. Martha would not want that end, and neither do you.
You don’t want the Lord as a short-term guest. You want the Lord who serves you the better portion, the Lord who knows that hosting takes effort, but was not distracted, was not irritated, but willingly put forth the effort for you. Jesus as host puts forth more effort than making certain the plates are full and the cups are clean and you feel cozy. He’s not into cozy, but he is into comfort, and the price of your comfort was his discomfort, compelling him to put forth effort, work, sweat, blood, agony: giving up his body – to soldiers, to mockers, to the world in its rage, to death on a cross for you, to be buried in a tomb for you. You want this Lord– not as short term guest, but eternal Host, who serves, continues to serve the better portion, not here the last purple popsicle or the biggest piece of chicken, but the distribution of himself, Host and Guest, at the table he sets for you.
Martha, the real Martha, seems to have gotten it in the end. Let’s not forget that this is Martha, whose faith moved her to proclaim, “Lord, had you been here four days ago, my brother would not have died, but even now, even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, he will do for you. I believe that you are the Christ, the son of the living God – I receive you, Lord Jesus, as the resurrection and the life, the one who you say you are – and when I have made my home in the tomb, I do not receive you as just a welcomed traveler, a sojourner, a visitor – I do not receive you, but even there, even there, you receive me – even here I am the one who is being received as guest, you the host, because here you made your home to wait for me, here you paved a way for me to rest a little while. My tomb is no strange lodging, for you welcomed me into your crucifixion, you welcomed me into your grave, you drowned me with your water, killing me in my sin and burying me in a baptism that you wrought, fulfilling it in my daily death and my death on the last day, simply to give me a respite, a rest, sanctified by your rest in the tomb, until the day that you welcome me into the mansion you have prepared for me.”
And when I rise, I rise again in your exit, your egress, your stone rolled away is my red carpet, your door out is my door in, your glorious new life is a new heaven and a new earth, where you welcome me once again as a guest, you the Host, knowing that even as you raised my brother Lazarus, so you will raise me and all who trust in you, invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb which has no end, where we are served by the Host forever and ever.
The old chestnut is that heaven and hell are both a banquet – the fare is the same, the utensils are the same – richest foods on a sumptuous board, but everyone’s spoon is nine feet long. The only difference between the two is that in hell you have to serve yourself. And in heaven, you are the one who is served.
Insisting on your own way is incurvatus in se, turned in upon yourself. The lord you receive on your terms, at your invitation, is no Lord at all – he’s a tenant at best, who’s a bit too easy to evict when he doesn’t come up with the rent you want or think you need that day. Fickle old heart of the fickle old Adam, unbuckled from the love of God by even our best intentions. Learn Martha’s lesson – there’s a portion, the portion to be desired, that only comes to the honored guest from a willing host, the One who does the work.
Receive the Lord today, as host, at his invitation.
In Jesus’ name.
Pr. CJ Armstrong (cja)