Readings: Genesis 18: 1-10a, Luke 10: 38-42, Secrets of Heaven #2189:2 (see below)
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Photo by: Pragyan Bezbaruah
Interpreters have often been quite hard on poor Sarah and Martha in these texts. Though it wasn’t included in our reading, Genesis 18 goes on to detail Sarah’s reaction to the news that she will have a son. Now, she and Abraham are remarkably old, long past child bearing years. God had already promised them a son, but that was many years ago and they had been waiting a long long time. When Sarah overheard the promise of the child, well, she laughed. It seemed ridiculous. And her laughter, even as it informed the naming of her son Isaac, has sometimes been lifted up as a lack of faith. Likewise poor Martha toiling away in the kitchen. She has often been portrayed as preoccupied with silly, superficial, self-serving things, her resentment as unwarranted, her complaining to Jesus remarkably presumptive.
But as we know from our own spiritual journeys, our feelings and our reactions are rarely so simple, so black and white. With a Swedenborgian interpretive lens, we look not to each character in themselves, as if one is a model for us and one is not, but rather, that each character represents a part of ourselves. We all hold within us Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Martha, some parts welcoming some parts doubting, some parts yearning, some parts resentful. The key is to notice which part is rising up within us, and why, and what we are to learn from its appearance.
As we begin to explore commonalities between the texts, we can see that each begins with some sort of act of welcoming, an opening of a home towards people who are guests. Then, once the guests are welcomed, the expectations of the hosts are challenged is some way.
In both stories, there appears a sudden need for hospitality. Abraham spots three strangers in the distance. Their arrival is unexpected. The narrator has informed the reader that it is the Lord, but Abraham does not know this yet. He offers them sustenance and orders the preparation of a choice meal. Sarah and the servants diligently get to work. In our text from Luke, Jesus and the disciples were traveling as was their practice, and they came to a village “where a woman name Martha opened her home to him.” It’s not a foregone conclusion this would happen. Jesus has been gaining notoriety for sure, but he was still regarded suspiciously by many. Martha was taking a chance on him, for clearly she had responded to his message.
And so, we are prompted to consider the practice of welcoming and hospitality in our own lives. What happens when we open our homes and our shared spaces with others and with God? On a deeper level, what happens when we likewise open our hearts, our minds, our lives to others and to God?
Certainly, we might first imagine that it is our job to make guests feel comfortable by doing all the right things. We’ll do our guest room up just right, and they will be happy. And when we ourselves are guests, perhaps we try not to be any trouble. And this is nice, all well and good. But God’s purpose for hospitality is not limited to niceness. When we are willing to welcome God into our lives, we find that God has no intention of being a perfect guest. God has a little bit of trouble in mind.
On each of our journeys, God aims to be present, loving, and steadfast but also to challenge our expectations, to lead us into transformation. We all have certain notions around “this is the way things are.” Sarah’s barrenness, and her age, are a metaphor for the ways in which we might have written ourselves off…we will always be too “something” for God to truly work a miracle of transformation in us. Too complacent, too busy, too tired, too satisfied, too nervous, too overwhelmed, just not ready. Sarah knew what God’s ultimate plans were, yet she had exempted herself from participation in them.
Martha was grappling with expectations in a different way; the expectations of the world around her. As the host, Martha had certain duties that she felt she needed to fulfill. Indeed, earlier in the very same chapter, Jesus had sent out the disciples to go from town to town, to rely on the very kind of hospitality that Martha was giving. So we need to be clear, Martha was doing a very good, very needed thing. And at the same time, she was being challenged to think differently about the roles that her society proscribed. Yes, Mary was neglecting her work, but it was work that her society had deemed appropriate for her. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary was transgressing social boundaries, taking on the space of a disciple, who was typically only male. Yet, Jesus lifts her up as an unlikely, unexpected hero, just like the Samaritan was lifted up in the parable directly beforehand. Martha then joins with us, with the hearers of the story, as Jesus compassionately makes clear that the boundaries, the roles that the world creates are not operative in the kingdom of God. Mary has a yearning in her heart, and it shall not be taken away by those who would act to limit others because it serves them in some way.
And so *we* are also challenged to see differently. Sarah was challenged to see herself differently, Martha was challenged to see others differently. And it was hospitality that kickstarted the process; we cannot be transformed if we do not open our doors, our minds, our hearts. This opening, this welcoming of unexpected experience is not always easy.
Sometimes our ideas about ourselves and others, yes even our ideas about our own goodness, have to fall apart and be rebuilt. We are forced to face our own limits, we are forced to see what compromises we make just to feel okay in this broken world, and we are sometimes forced to see our notions of who and what is righteous crumble.
When this happens we will often react in human ways; we doubt, we resent, we resist, we object, we justify. These are all normal things to do and feel. It’s just not where God will leave us. Chaos, confusion, challenge are not the end point, as overwhelming and all consuming as they might feel. Because, the beautiful part of this process is that, as we know from the Old Testament story, it ends with birth. Sarah is told that she will give birth to a son. Sarah hears a word from God that seems unbelievable, and she laughs. The Lord again compassionately challenges her: “Why did you laugh?” We can imagine God thinking: “What else do you imagine I am trying to do here?” And then we read in verse 14 "Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” I will return to you and you will have a son, I will return to you and you will have birthed something new. This is what God is up to.
In the Swedenborgian worldview, Sarah’s son Isaac represents the rational becoming spiritual. In our reading, we learned about the process of spiritual transformation; that it happens because of a desire to know what is true, what is ultimately and beautifully true, even if the truth is hidden, as it often is, by our expectations. This ability to look for, and to recognize, essential truth is what Swedenborg calls the human “rational.” The rational just starts out wanting to know things. But in order to be able to become spiritually mature, our rational has to figure out what to *do* with the truth that it has found, how to integrate that truth into a life well lived, a life of love.
We heard in our Swedenborg reading that when we are devoted to seeking truth and living a life of love, then this life of love is “constantly being born and developing and increasing” within us. We can now start to see how the story of Sarah and Martha is one that happens again and again and again. This is how it works: in a life that wishes to become progressively more spiritual, in a life that wishes to know what is true and real, we are constantly challenged to rewire our habitual ways of thinking and seeing, constantly challenged figure out new ways of loving our neighbor, and thus we give birth to new versions of ourselves. Constantly. This is how our faith is formed, this is how we become angels, this is how God leads us to eternity. It’s not always comfortable, sometimes it is downright unpleasant, but it is the way of love: sacrificial, courageous, and determined.
So, throughout our day-to-day, throughout our lives, like Abraham, we are sitting at the entrance to our tent and we see the stranger coming, a person, a circumstance, a life-change, a bump-in-the-road. What do we see Abraham do? He runs toward them and bows down. Our natural response might be to close our eyes, to walk on by, to hum a tune and look away. But no, our sacred text bids us run towards them, run because we know that they are gift from God, run because we know that God works to transform us through our experience in this world, run because God’s economy wastes nothing. Hospitality, openness, and welcome are the right thing to do. And they work to transform us as well.
Martha welcomed Jesus because she perceived that he was doing something important. He was; and because of that she was challenged to think anew, challenged to notice her own bias, preoccupations, and yearnings. We are not told how this works out for her, what her reflection looked like, what new thing was born for her. What we do know is that the Lord was doing what God always does: breathing us into expanded ways of thinking and loving so that we can transform and grow, so we can become the angels God knows that we can be.
1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” 6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” 7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. 9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Secrets of Heaven 2189:2
The first and foremost element of the rational with a person is truth…and therefore it is the affection for truth, which exists with a person to enable them to be reformed and so regenerated, such reformation being effected by means of cognitions and facts, which are matters of truth. These are being constantly implanted in good, that is, in charity, so that in this manner a person may receive the life of charity. It is therefore the affection for truth with a person that predominates in their rational. For the situation with the life of charity, which is the life of heaven itself, is that in people who are being reformed and regenerated it is constantly being born and developing and increasing, such growth being achieved by means of truths. Therefore the more truth that is implanted, the more is the life of charity perfected. Thus as is the nature and the amount of truth present with a person, so is the charity present with them.