As Jesus was traveling, he entered a certain village. A woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him speak.
Luke 10: 38-9
In the very familiar story of today’s gospel, we hear of Martha and Mary welcoming Jesus. In Luke’s context, their home provides a sanctuary for Jesus in the midst of a hostile territory. They receive him while most around them refuse to receive him, and the manner in which they do so provides a teaching about our potential to receive Jesus and what dispositions are required of us to welcome him.
In his commentary on this passage, Luke Timothy Johnson (The Gospel of Luke, p. 175) writes:
The story also refines the nature of hospitality. Jesus’ response to Martha makes clear that the “one thing necessary” for hospitality is attention to the guest, rather than a domestic performance. If the guest is a prophet, the appropriate reception is listening to God’s word! The lesson extends by implication of course to every guest received. Jesus nicely turns the point from one of providing a service to receiving a gift: the other who comes into our space is a messenger of grace.
The one thing necessary for hospitality is a particular kind of attention and a kind of single-minded listening wherein we and the guest are at one. This story, of course, follows that of the Good Samaritan. In the former there is an attention to the other which is heedless of our own concerns, possessions, and even cultural and religious beliefs. In the latter there is a totally poor and open reception of the gift that the other is to us. What is being described is not a tension between doing for others and receiving from them, but rather a description of our deepest distinctively human capacity for God and God’s love.
In one of his sermons on the story of Martha and Mary, Meister Eckhart comments at length on “the little town” (translated above as “a certain village”). He asks what “the little town” is in us, and he answers that it is the unnameable capacity for God that is in us. “It is free of all names, it is bare of all forms, wholly empty and free, as God in himself is empty and free. It is so utterly one and simple, as God is one and simple, that [the human person] cannot in any way look into it.” (Sermon 2) What it most truly means to be human is the capacity we are for God, a space in which God is continually giving birth to the Word.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan we hear of the one, universal, indiscriminate love of God for all passing through the instrument of a despised foreigner. In the story of Martha and Mary we are taught of the one thing necessary if God is to be received and so manifest in God’s world. The key to understanding these teachings is that it is not a question of God entering “our world” but rather of our recognizing and welcoming God into the space that is God’s. We are, by nature, complicated, but we are, in origin, “one and simple.” It’s the strangest of human paradoxes that becoming one and simple is so difficult for us. There is nothing more difficult to practice than to pay attention and listen, in purity of heart, to the guest. Letting God be God in us, and so in our world, is “the one thing necessary.”
There is a “little town” in us that is so one and so simple that is the same life as the God who in Oneness is eternally giving birth to the Word. Yet, as in Luke’s gospel, that town is surrounded by hostile territory. This morning CNN reports that in a recent study it was seen that typical 13 year olds check social media around one hundred times per day. For all of us, there is more and more external stimuli to check with each passing month and year. Today we are asked how well we attend and listen to what is within. Are we hospitable to the great gift of Divine Life within us, to “the one thing necessary”?
And now see and pay heed! This little town, about which I am talking and which I have in mind, is in the soul so one and so simple, far above whatever can be described, that this noble power about which I have spoken is not worthy even once for an instant to look into this little town; and the other power too of which I spoke, in which God is gleaming and burning with all his riches and with all his joy, it also does not ever dare to look into it. This little town is so truly one and simple, and this simple one is so exalted above every manner and every power, that no power, no manner, not God himself may look at it. It is as true that this is true and that I speak truly as that God is alive! God himself never for an instant looks into it, never yet did he look on it, so far as he possesses himself in the manner and according to the properties of his Persons. It is well to observe this, because this simple one is without manner and without properties. And therefore, if God were ever to look upon it, that must cost him all his divine names, and the properties of his Persons; that he must wholly forsake, if he is ever once to look into it. But as he is simply one, without any manner and properties, he is not Father or Son or Holy Spirit, and yet he is a something that is neither this nor that.
Observe that as he is one and simple, so he comes into the one, which in the soul I have called a little town, and so he comes there, and so he is there. In this part the soul is like to God, and otherwise not. What I have said to you is true; I call the truth to witness this, and I lay my soul as a pledge.
That we may also be a little town into which Jesus may come and be received, and remain forever in us in the way that I have said, may God help us to this, Amen.
Meister Eckhart, Sermon 2