Today’s readings tell of two very different meal stories. In the first reading there is food for Africa. Do the maths and you’ll discover he prepares a banquet that would serve hundreds of people; the menu includes nearly 80 pounds of bread and 700 pounds of meat. Abraham spares absolutely nothing, including his wife’s labour, to welcome strangers into his abode. It’s not something we can imagine very well today. Imagine these same wandering strangers turning up at a gated community. They probably wouldn’t get beyond the vigilant guards.
What is extraordinary about this episode is the all-out welcome that Abraham gave them. Why so welcoming to these unknown strangers? Did he sense something special about them? Or was it the loneliness of the arid countryside that made him yearn for company of any sort? We don’t really know. What we do know is that time wasn’t an issue. These strangers were prepared to spend quite some time with Abraham. It takes a good afternoon to kill and prepare a fatted calf. This was no fast food outlet where you can grab a hamburger on the go. This was a full event in itself where revelations slowly came to the fore. Before they left Abraham realised that he had entertained and that Sarah, in her old age, would have a child within the year.
The second meal today was far less extravagant but delightful nevertheless. Jesus wasn’t looking for fast food either when he visited Martha and Mary. What comes across very clear is the purpose of his visit, namely, to converse and enjoy the company of these two good friends. And this is where Martha slips up. Instead of relaxing and enjoying Jesus’ company, like Mary, she got worried and flustered about many things. Hence the gentle rebuke from Jesus that only one thing is necessary and that Mary has chosen the better part. In this sentence Jesus is presenting Mary as a model of discipleship for us. Is it not the case that we are frequently busy with many things, but when it comes to spending time listening to the good Lord or reflecting on his wisdom, somehow or other the incentive is not always there. Yet we all know that we can’t forever be chasing our tails and that meditation can be a truly refreshing experience. Just to sit at the feet of Jesus like Mary, to dwell on his goodness and rejoice in the presence of the Word made flesh can be the perfect antidote to fast living and a real tonic for the work ahead.
Meals play a central role in Jesus ministry and that is particularly so in Luke where one gets the feeling that Jesus was ‘a party animal’. The meetings with those who were his followers and those who would listen are often shown to take place around the dining table. This was not just ‘a quick bite on the way from work’ – his gathering of people around him at meals was at the very heart of the Lord’s work. To learn about Jesus and to be with him is to eat with him. His meals model the perfect new community and offer a taste of the welcome of the Father in the final banquet.
It may be helpful to remember that the early Christian communities were small and the mass was held in a family setting, simply because for the first 300 years Christianity was a banned religion. Think of the ‘house mass’ with about 20 people and you’ve got the picture. So this little story of Jesus with Martha and Mary tells us something about the Eucharist. It’s primarily a meeting with the Lord, listening to him and sharing bread and wine. We may think of ‘getting mass’ not of sitting around the Lord’s table and being nourished by his presence. Sometimes our meals can be a matter of grabbing a sandwich before the telly and then rushing off to the next piece of excitement. This is not the meal experience that Luke wants to get across. To meet for the Eucharistic meal is the central act of the disciples’ week as Christians. There they gather to be participants in the presence of the Lord as their welcoming host. There they share his food and his life and listen to his words. There the key is to be focused on the Lord – like Mary – rather than focused on the mechanics of the meeting and the meal like Martha.
The gospel today reminds us that the Word has become flesh, and he sits among us. ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ is how the second reading puts it. He shares his table with us – the most basic human experience of welcome and sharing. We are disciples and sit with him and listen and learn from him so that we can grow to be fully-trained disciples.
There is always a surprise at Jesus’s meals: have you noticed this is a house that is owned by a woman? This is most unusual in the ancient world. Have you noticed that Jesus accepts women as full table companions – they can sit with him and talk with him? Again, not something that was at all usual in the ancient world. But Jesus broke down all the barriers to welcome at his table for that welcome was intended to show the welcome of the Father at the heavenly table.
Sunday, 17th July 2016