16th Sunday in Ordinary time

It’s the summer: a time of the year when we are likely to be visited by or to visit our families and friends. Either way, this visiting can be an enjoyable experience as much as a chore, and quite often it’s a mixture of both. It’s no great secret that seeing the back of our visitors is as great a feeling as welcoming them on the doorstep – not because they have been unpleasant or difficult, but because it means we can get back to routine and return to our little comforts uninterrupted. The disruption caused by having guests, or of being one, helps us to appreciate all the more our everyday, seemingly uneventful and apparently dull lives.

In today’s first reading Abraham’s siesta is interrupted by three travellers turning up at the entrance to his tent. It’s the hottest part of the day and certainly not the best time for hosting unannounced and unexpected visitors. Nevertheless, Abraham invites them to take some rest and he offers them light refreshments – though in fact he prepares a substantial meal. He is propelled to action by the ancient tradition of offering hospitality, but I think he must also have realised that these visitors are of a certain significance and importance. You can protest your innocence as much as you like, but we do judge people by their appearance, even if we do this subconsciously. It’s as true about Abraham as much as it is about anyone else. It seems that Abraham’s hospitality is rewarded with a promise made to him by his guests: the promise of a son to be born in a year’s time, the promise made to the childless elderly man Abraham and his equally childless and elderly wife Sarah. This story is in line with a Hollywood-style happy ending and of goodness being rewarded. But quite often real life isn’t like a Hollywood film, is it?

Today’s gospel has a similar theme of hospitality. This time it’s a family of three siblings – Martha, Mary and Lazarus, though the latter isn’t mentioned in today’s passage – entertaining Jesus at their house. This storyline might sound familiar to many of us. While Martha is working hard to prepare everything and get it on the table, her sister Mary sits idly by, listening to Jesus talking to their brother Lazarus. Irritated, and becoming increasingly impatient, Martha eventually snaps at the party and asks Jesus directly to reprimand Mary. To everyone’s surprise he does the opposite; he praises Mary for choosing the better part. What is that ‘better part’?

It reminds me of a situation many years ago when I was in my late teenage years or very early twenties. I was godfather to a toddler cousin of mine: he was a lovable creature, but totally spoiled because he was a late arrival to the family. Once I popped in to visit the boy and his family; he welcomed me at the door with a simple and direct question: ‘What have you got for me?’ I had brought with me neither a toy nor sweets; honestly, I had nothing to offer him. My reply surprised him when I said: ‘I thought you’d be happy to see me myself, rather than just gifts from me.’ He instantly gave me a huge hug and we spent some time playing together. Never again has he asked me for gifts; despite that, we always had a great time together until I left my home town and lost contact with him. Over all those years since then I have learnt his lesson too: the lesson to appreciate and accept another person as a gift of the greatest value.

Both of today’s stories – that of Abraham and that of Jesus – tell us about God visiting people in disguise. In both stories, the hosts are rewarded: for Abraham it’s the invaluable promise of a son; in the gospel, the actual presence of Jesus is his gift to Martha, Mary and Lazarus. In Poland we have a saying: ‘to receive a guest is to receive God.’ It’s a beautiful description of the right attitude we should cultivate when making the effort to accommodate our visitors’ reasonable needs. And for us not to behave like gods when it’s us visiting others.