Posted by: sailingspirit | May 21, 2011

A Mary Living in Martha’s House

I admit to having a few of Martha Stewart’s magazines and I love to create a great experience for those I host. I love the creative ideas for new things and solutions for seemingly ageless problems. It’s great stuff. Which is why everybody loves it and gets hooked on the dream–and then burns out when they realize you can’t possibly do all of those things all the time. How to decide which take priority? The magazines don’t mention that part.

Interestingly enough, the Bible also promotes lavish hosting but does make it abundantly clear that both the purpose and the focus must remain fixed in the right place, that a limit does exist, and which priority to focus on. We see this best in the story of Jesus’ visit to Mary & Martha’s house, where both are so excited to host Him yet they take different approaches to doing so. Mary welcomes Him predominantly with herself, showering Him with hugs and smiles and warm attentiveness to what He has to say, so that He feels He is truly welcomed and the highlight of her week. She displays that she feels blessed by His presence. Martha, in contrast, tries to make Him feel comfortable and welcome by focusing on the cleanliness of the home and comfortableness of the seating and making sure there’s enough food and no one’s beverage goes empty and all such other provisions. While her motivation is to create a pleasurable experience for Him, her choice of activity is actually displaying that His arrival is a burden to her–she now has more work to do and more things to worry about. So much so that she says it outright–exasporated and aggravated, she orders Jesus to order Mary to help with the burden! How could the guest not receive that message loud and clear, and feel guilty about staying? Obligated to leave so as not to be a burden? Would not Mary have been really embarassed?

When Jesus responds to Martha’s exasporation, He reminds her to see it from the guest’s point of view. He points out how Mary’s attentiveness and adoration, her choosing Him over all other possible priorities, makes Him feel special and loved. Mary drops everything for Him! And together they both enjoy a good time. That is what He came for. He came for a time of fellowship. While He certainly appreciates a clean and comfortable place to relax, and the food and drink to revive His travel-wearied body, that is not why He chose to come to their house. He could have stayed in any number of places that would have offered similar amenities, but He chose their house because it was the only place that offered them. Martha’s priorities certainly aren’t bad, but they’re not the most high. Furthermore, He’s enjoying a good time but she’s less happy since He arrived. So how can that be the best outcome? How can she truly believe that is worth all the effort? He teaches her that being refreshed back to normal is nice, but being refreshed beyond normal–invigorated and inspired–is even better. He would feel more invigorated if He could dine with His friends, not alone. And thus, He invites Martha to sit, turning Himself into the host and the hostess into the hosted.

This is directly applicable to our lifestyles today.

Have you ever visited someone who is so concerned about appearances, so consumed with the perfection of his or her home, that you’re afraid to move or breathe in case you ruin something? Leaped at by a coaster-carrying, fear-clutched Teacher of Beverage Etiquette? Felt like a kid in a museum, not allowed to touch anything for fear it will fingerprint, smudge, scratch or break? That’s really uncomfortable, isn’t it? Uncomfortable on the inside, even if you’re in a comfortable chair.  You shrink back mentally and emotionally, perhaps even physically–being in their home causes your personhood to shrivel.  Because the clear message is that you are a liability, a potential for disaster, you can (and will) be sent away but the furnishings are there to stay.

Perhaps, too, you’ve felt that no matter what your needs are, the schedule and habits of the hosting home ought not be altered. So no matter if you pulled in at 3 am and got to bed at 4 am, the lawn will be mowed promptly at 7 am. Or the baby just finally fell asleep, but the Game is On and apparently must be watched in surround-sound.

Thus, you were anxious for the time to leave and go back home again, so you could truly breathe, sleep, relax and just be yourself.

Or, perhaps you’ve lived with someone who was a Martha, and therefore couldn’t feel comfortable even at home. Have you ever been told not to use the good dishes or the good towels, not to eat the special foods, not to go in certain rooms or sit on furniture without plastic covers because they were for guests? How did that make you feel? Like you weren’t as worthy or valuable as other people? That friends were first-class citizens but family were lower caste? How damaging is it to hear that message from your own parents or spouse, the ones who are supposed to cherish and value you the most?

Now think back to the last few times you hosted someone at your home, whether just for a meal or an overnight stay. What kinds of things did you do before the guest(s) arrived? What did you do after he/she/they arrived? What did you do after the guest(s) left? Now, how much of what you and your home offered could’ve been enjoyed by them had they gone to a restaurant or hotel instead? Then why didn’t they? You could’ve gone to the restaurant with them, and enjoyed yourself, too. Why didn’t you? Is there anything about your choices that resembles Mary’s approach to hosting? Any that resemble Martha’s? Compared to what Jesus felt and said in their home, and how you have felt when visiting other people, what might your guest(s)’ take-away impressions have been at your home? Was it the same as what you wanted it to be?

The motivation behind hospitality should always be the benefit of those hosted. If at any time your motivation becomes impressing people, fishing for compliments, boosting your own self-esteem with their praise, or trying to out-do alternative hosts, your motivation has become contaminated with selfishness. You are sucking out of, rather than refreshing, your guests.

Likewise, whenever your focus is more on the look of the home than the look on your guest’s face, you have gotten off-target. Your motivation might be good–desiring comfort and pleasantness for your guest’s enjoyment–but where your attention goes is where their attention follows. If you’re noticing every little imperfection, so are they drawn to it, and if your priority appears to be the stuff instead of them, they will know they are less important to you.

So consider being like Mary, who is so delighted with the guests’ arrival that she drops everything and hangs on their every word. “Nah, that can wait. I can do that when you’re not here.” (Smiles and loops her arms through theirs.) “So tell me about where you’ve been and what you’ve done since I last saw you. And don’t leave out a single detail–I want to hear all of it even if it takes all night!”

Now that’s a place I would want to return to again and again. Wouldn’t you?

It’s time the Body of Christ wake-up to the legacy of hospitality they’ve long since abandoned and pushed off onto the secular world. Perhaps the corporations have more money with which to be fancy, but ever notice how they try to be personal yet can’t, fully? You may not have big dollars but what you can excel at is the personal part. Focus on this, and you can become just as famous for how people feel in your home as they feel in snazzy resorts.

Take a moment to consider hospitality in a few different periods of time:

In the ancient near-east, where Jesus lived, travelling was a hot, dusty, rugged, lengthy, sweaty, stinky, and even dangerous endeavor. It could take days to get to the next town, with no wayside stops for drinks and snacks, no spare parts for your donkey or camel, and if some kind stranger didn’t take you in, you could be left vulnerable to whatever human, animal, or climatological threats encroached in the night. By the time you arrived, what you wanted most was safety, shade, ability to wash sweat, road dust and animal dung off of yourself, and probably a nap. You might be famished. There were no hostels or hospitals or hotels then–only the homes of the villagers and maybe a palace for the king. If the city was large enough to feature an Inn, it was simply someone’s roadside home with empty rooms and empty seats at the table; the owner actually lived there. He or she would tend to your weary self, not expect you to bounce in and entertain them.

Same goes for Inns in colonial America. People willing to take in travellers would put candles in the window to signal that they were friend not foe, a safe haven and would not be disturbed by late-night arrivals. Both host and traveller could know they were on the same side.  Thus today we love Bed & Breakfasts, a more cozy and personal experience than the commercial alternative, and the slogan “We’ll leave the light on for ‘ya.” We spill out of vehicles and sprawl across the beds, relieved to have a few minutes to “freshen up” and “stretch” (unpack) before beginning to visit.

Consider, too, the culinary tradition. In the Old Testament, when the Lord appeared on the horizon, Abraham told his household to prepare a meal and bring it to the guests while he welcomed them. Likewise, when the father saw the prodigal son a ways off, he told the household to prepare a feast and bring it forth, while he went out to meet the boy on the road. Somehow, hundreds of years later in the New Testament stories, this pattern changed. We have the story of Martha, who felt obligated to do all of the hostessing personally, and would continue to do so even after the guests had arrived. She not only didn’t stop to welcome the guests, she tried to pull the rest of the family away from doing so.

In the Renaissance and through the Victorian era, we see a return to hospitality roles. Whether the rich ruling class or humble but large families, some people did the cleaning while others did the cooking, and yet others welcomed them in and tended to their needs. We see evidence of this in our architecture–kitchens used to be separated from the house altogether, or at least in a separate out-of-sight part of the house, so the guests didn’t have to hear the noise and see the mess. The Butler had his own pantry for serving supplies and prep duties. Reception areas for receiving guests were at the front of the house, and private family spaces were separate. Nobody expected to get a “tour” of the family’s private spaces because they had no business going in there. Private is private; anything else is improper.

Since then, we have morphed into a society where we, like Martha, think we have to be super human and do all the roles ourselves. We think our homes must be wide open and all spaces visible to our guests, therefore putting pressure on ourselves to make every part of the house a showpiece. We answer the door sweaty and discombobulated because we didn’t allow enough time to get ourselves cleaned up (which is gross, and leads us to distance-hugging people who were hoping we’d seem more genuinely delighted). And then we insist on also doing all the cooking last minute, so guests feel obligated to stand or perch precariously in our kitchens because the host chooses to work for them instead of sit down with them. Who among us prefers to stand for an hour when there are chairs and sofas directly behind us? Can you imagine Abraham making the Lord stand next to the fire while the meal was being prepared? We complain that there’s so much to do, or not enough time, or that we feel separated from the action while we fix and fuss. Yet there are options as simple as asking a family member or friend to help out, to asking a cleaning service to give you extra hands, to having the grocery store or local restaurant cater the food. To want help but refuse it is ridiculous.

Furthermore, we see more and more homes designed around not only the kitchen counter but a television set, even going so far as to make people walk the long way around an arrangement of furniture in order to take a seat and guests arranged in lines side by side facing a wall instead of in a circle facing each other. This is not hospitable at all! Somewhere along the way we have started telling people to “make yourselves at home,” (which really means “get it yourself” and “conform to our lifestyle”) instead of “do you need anything?” Whatever happened to the Sitting Rooms? Do we really need to watch TV when people we haven’t seen in days, weeks, months or even years are finally with us again? Are these people worth so little to us that they must take second place to made-up people??

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine D. Pohl. Only 180 pages but chock-ful of wonderful history and insight into how hospitality began, how it waxed and waned, and how it declined into our present-day substitute. Like Jesus balancing His hostesses, Pohl guides us through re-instituting the art in our own lives. I think you’ll find it a real treasure trove, the key in the lock of getting so much more out of your social time.

In fact, I suggest you keep it with your Martha Stewart magazines, so you can master the personal touch of hosting in every way.

I look back on my previous home and hosting joys, realizing things I got right and things I could have done differently. For the time being I’m a Mary living in Martha’s home, wishing I could find the comfort and relaxation all the fuss and obsession is supposedly for, as well as equality status with non-family entrants. So I look forward to the day I move into the next home God provides for me, and making the most of what I’ve learned so that everyone can enjoy His richness while they have the chance. I intend to make it a home where not just my presence, but His, is always felt. I’m clipping magazine photos to give me some ideas.



  1. Wow, what a truly wonderful post! This has really opened my eyes to what is most important in the role of host. Thank you for reminding us that it is contact and attention that is most precious when we spend time with others.

  2. […] spend with my friends, without letting insecurity ruin special moments. I immediately remembered a wonderful post I’d read about welcoming guests, and I realised that this is not a time for fear, but a time for […]

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