The warm days of summer are upon us and one of the best aspects of summer vacations is the luxury of spending time with family and friends. Summertime is about putting into practice the gift and virtue of hospitality. What does it mean to be hospitable? How can we be hospitable people, families, neighbourhoods, communities and churches?
The Old Testament biblical stories extol hospitality as both a duty and a work of mercy. For the people of the desert, hospitality was a necessity for survival. It is said that since this necessity falls upon all alike, any guest is entitled to hospitality from any host. The guest, once accepted by the host, is sacred, and must be protected from any danger even at the cost of the life of members of the family.
One anecdote about Abraham in the book of Genesis shows him as the model of a generous host. The good host makes a feast for his guest, such a feast as is never prepared for the family. Job boasts of hospitality. God is also portrayed as a generous host in psalms.
The Greek word for hospitality is philanthropia -- love of human beings, kindness. The virtue of hospitality is praised in the New Testament as well, and enumerated among the works of charity by which we will be judged. Jesus depends on it and regards it as important in his parables. God's hospitality is an essential part of his message. Jesus had no home and was frequently a guest, as we read in Luke's gospel. And it was the practice of Paul on his journeys first to visit the Jews and to stay with them, and to stay with the Gentiles only if the Jews refused him.
The well-known story from Luke's gospel about Jesus visiting to Mary and Martha is essentially a story about hospitality -- pointing out that God doesn't just look at how well we carry out our duties. No woman (and no man) should lose her/himself in busyness.
Mary of Bethany understood that. The one necessity in welcoming others into one's home or community is being present to them -- listening to what they have to say, as Mary does in this story.
Martha was caught up in the many demands put upon her by society's and culture's rules for serving guests. Much of her anxiety and concern had more to do with conforming to society's demands or with the desire of the host or hostess to shine as a model of accomplished and generous hospitality.
Attentive and present
Her sister Mary focused on the most important thing required in welcoming others. She was attentive and present to Jesus, her special guest. Mary teaches us that a simple pita bread was better than a seven-course roasted lamb dinner, if it got her out of the kitchen and allowed her to spend time in such honourable company.
Let's not forget that hospitality has enemies -- selfishness and pride. When we are so wrapped up with ourselves, our own problems and difficulties, or we wish to jealously preserve what we have and exclude foreigners and strangers from our lives and riches, we are inhospitable.
Too much introspection and inwardness will prevent us from truly being present to others. Preoccupation with external appearances, details and activity prevents us from listening and welcoming.
Let's hope that all those who enter our homes and cottages this summer will find a place to refresh and renew and in turn invigorate us by their visits.