Maybe Give Martha a Break

A hot topic, as of late, has been hospitality. Specifically that Christians should be hospitable and how they should do so. While I absolutely agree that hospitality is a command* and is one of the most effective ways to demonstrate and share the Gospel, I fear that there is a trend of watering down our hospitality much like we see the the dilution of the Gospel in much preaching.

To be clear I am not critiquing any particular writer or thinker on this subject. Specifically I am thinking of their readers and followers. 

To illustrate, allow me to relate a short anecdote. 

Back in the heady days of Emerging Churches and the Young Restless and Reformed bunch, a question was put to John Piper about Douglas Wilson during a Q&A at the Desiring God Conference (If I am recalling correctly). 

The question amounted to, because of Wilsons views on Federal Vision: is he preaching another Gospel? Piper’s response was, no, he didn’t think Wilson was preaching another Gospel but a very confusing one. 

And then came the quote which has stuck with me all these years, “Doug Wilson is a very smart guy, but he is surrounded by idiots.” 

That is a distinction all writers need to be constantly aware of. An author or theologian can be correct, and they can even be excellent examples, but they have not control over who reads them, what sticks, and how it will be applied in real time. 

My hunch is that the Christian Hospitality movement has fallen victim to this problem and could use a few course corrections. If not, we may see it fizzle or burn out until some young enterprising person “rediscovers it.” And frankly, I would rather see it stride along.

I find there are two prominent errors being made that I would like to address in turn. The first being doing the bare minimum as a host and justifying it away. The other creating a legalism around aspects of hosting and burning out. I will address the first because that is where I am more prone, so I might as well air my own dirty laundry before taking out the neighbors.

The Legalist

Because Jesus makes commands not suggestions, I see no excuse to be inhospitable. 

All men should aspire to be elders and, as previously mentioned, one of the requirements is to be a gracious and generous host. In these things we are displaying the Gospel. Christ was, is, and will be a gracious and generous host to us. 

We are invited into his family. We will one day dine with Him at a banquet he hosts. We are welcomed into His Father’s house where there are many mansions. And I think that as a host, those will have been individually built and tailored for those permanent guests. The Father himself generously filled the earth with every good thing and then brought into it people, and gifted to them a perfect comfortable place where they could eat from any tree (but the one). These are good hosting skills. They are displayed for us and we are invited to copy them. Hospitality is a high calling, it is a king training his sons to one day reign as He Himself does. This then means that Christian Hospitality should not be thrown off. It should be frequent and when possible, lavish. It is a blessing, we are blessed by God and we bless others with His good gifts. 

With that in mind the pitfall can become to go overboard out of pride. The hospitality is not about adorning the Gospel but flaunting the host’s house, culinary skills, or social prowess. Also if hospitality is regular but must never be less than a cover photo for Better Homes and Garden a host and very quickly wear themselves out, their spouse and their family. And a host who is secretly resenting his guests is not effectively displaying any gospel, much less a grand, glorious, and desirable one. A host who’s whole family is exhausted by people and the work they incur becomes bitter. Which means in the short term guests will be made unwelcome, but in the long term there will be no guests in the children’s home when they become adults. Families should not be sacrificed on the alter of white glove hospitality. There are times and seasons of life where regular, extraordinary hospitality is unwise or just not possible. A crockpot and paper napkins can be used by the Holy Spirit just as effectively as a table sagging under the weight of multiple courses with the good linen.

The Lazy

The additional error is to do as little as possible when hosting and justify it as being “authentic.” If I may take my above example of Piper and apply it to how I see this coming about, Rosaria Butterfield’s book on the subject The Gospel Comes with a House-key has many example of paired down and stretched thin hospitality. She writes of store brand coffee, lintel soup that can be made in large batches, lego’s on the floor, and guests folding laundry. In the wake of the book it was stunning how quickly droves of people were “into hospitality” and were boasting of the horrendous conditions of their homes. 

To paraphrase Piper, “Rosaria is a very smart woman, but she is surrounded by idiots.”
What can easily be missed in all her descriptions is how much work she is putting into hospitality. She is a pastor’s wife, raising kids, writing books, a traveling speaker, and if I may be indelicate, not rich. Considering the sheer volume of people coming through the Butterfield home on a consistent basis some level of chaos and corner cutting qualifies as best practices. The lazy host has none of the obstacles but all of the corners cut. 

A Tale of Two Martha’s

I think Martha, sister of Lazarus, rebuked of Jesus’ fame, gets a bad rep. She is frequently derided because her sister Mary, “Chose what is best.” But I think the simplicity of the story is overlooked. 

Martha wasn’t doing a bad thing, she just had bad timing. Judas, having a greedy melt down when the woman poured perfume over Jesus’ feet, is also analogous. Jesus was present, the poor would always be with them, He wouldn’t. The food could always be cooked later, But Jesus would not constantly be sitting in the living room teaching. Martha’s priorities were not wrong just out of order. And I think we do the reverse. We can shuffle off the hard work of good hosting by citing Martha, but what we have missed is that we are the ones who are to be imaging Jesus! The Great Host. Another Martha is what I would like to call Martha “Stawman” Stewart. This is the Martha that we jump to as another example of bad hosting because it is over the top. As with all straw men, or in this case women, there is a kernel of truth. Granted no where in the Bible does it require you at, say Christmas time to adorn your front doors with fresh spruce garlands, a hand woven wreath of holly and cranberries,and beeswax candles lovingly hand dipped by Norwegian virgins leading up your cobblestone path. Yes you can go overboard in your hosting attempts, which usually leading to to roasting chestnuts exploding from the open fire which was sparked by all the goose fat drippings. But again this is not the kind of extremes Jesus is calling us too. 

Quality over Authenticity

I would like to suggest a way forward. Naturally it begins with repentance. If you are the legalist you should repent of that sin and back off. Probably back off of your spouse. Particularly if you are the husband, the command to live with your wife in an understanding way requires you to recognize her frame and constitution. Don’t make her do the work and you take the credit. Likewise don’t overdo it with people, in some sense you are called to be a good host to her in your shared home.** If you are the Lazy host then turn from your sluggardly ways and clean up, serve a meal that does not arrive on the table in a single heated container, perhaps even consider investing in dish ware that runs the risk of breaking if dropped. 

Martin Luther once said that humanity is like a drunk riding a mule who falls off one side and makes sure to fall off the other side to keep things even. My hunch is many of my generation grew up under harried mothers who had been told if hospitality didn’t look like six page spread in Southern Home magazine then it wasn’t hospitality. And now a great number of those who grew up under that regime have lurched off the mule in the opposite direction of doing as little as possible and then covering it with the beloved evangelical term, “Authenticity.” I propose we sober up and try to remain firmly in the saddle authenticity need not mean, no effort. 

To be clear there are stages in life when nice china is just not feasible. A mom with three kids and possibly a job is one of those stages. We are asked to do our best as a service to the Lord. And sometimes our best would make a southern belle run for her smelling salts and fainting sofa. But stagnation is not healthy we should all look to grow and improve in our faith and in our welcoming people into our homes. A prime stage in life to be hospitable in a big way is when just starting out. Young marrieds or singles should be looking to slowly gather ways to make a home welcoming. That might mean napkins that are not thrown away after the meal, a vacuum for the dog hair that was not inherited after grandma died, or matching pieces of furniture that does not come from Walmart’s Broke College Student Dorm Collection. Find books on a theology of hospitality. A personal favourite is Edith Schaffer’s The Art of Homemaking. Though some of her practical ideas can be dated or even a little extreme (bringing a small table cloth and some sea shells to arrange on a hotel room table when traveling comes to mind) the principals are excellent. 

High end hospitality doesn’t have to happen all at once. And in most cases should not be constant. But sanctification does mean growing more like Christ and that can include learning how to put on a spread that is a small taste of the banquet to come that will be laid out for us by the Great Host Himself.

*Specifically as a qualification for elders who are men (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:8) a topic I would like to explore further at some point. 

**Again I hope to build on this in the future.

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