Lent 4: Solitude & Hospitality
2 Kings 4:8-10
We are in the fourth week of our Lenten sermon series. This year we are talking about deepening our roots in Jesus. During Lent we often participate in a fast. The purpose of a fast is to help us grow closer to God. Fasting is sacrifice and blessing. For example, when we do a food fast, we might sacrifice a meal (like lunch) and we would replace the time spent preparing, eating, and cleaning up the food with prayer. A fast can also be adding a spiritual discipline to our lives and needing to sacrifice something in order to make space for it. Today we will talk about the twin disciplines of solitude and hospitality.
Solitude and Hospitality seem like opposites, so why would we talk about them together? In the conversation that Jesus has with the Lawyer at the beginning of our Luke passage from this morning, we see Luke’s version of the conversation about the greatest commandment. Here, in verse 25, the Lawyer wants to know how to inherit eternal life. Then in verse 27, the Lawyer says that the way to do it is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus says that he is right. The greatest commandment is to love God and neighbour. And of course, we also have to love ourselves. But loving God and neighbour are two sides of the same coin. Solitude and hospitality are the spiritual disciplines that empower us to love God and to love others. The more we spend time in solitude with God, the more we will be sent out to serve others. The more we serve others, the more we will need to spend time in solitude with God.
In our Luke passage this morning, we see the two sides of this coin. And Jesus is saying we need both, we need balance. The parable of the Good Samaritan is about the need to love others, and the story of Mary and Martha is about the need to spend time with God. Jesus is correcting an imbalance in each story. The combination of the two teaches us that we really need a healthy balance of both.
I am not going to spend a lot of time on the parable of the Good Samaritan, but just briefly… In the parable of the Good Samaritan, we see a priest and a Levite ignore an opportunity to serve others. The text doesn’t say why, it just says that they crossed to the other side of the road. We are supposed to understand that the priest and the Levite were close with God. They probably spent lots of time in solitude with God. But, they were out of balance. They were practicing solitude at the expense of practicing hospitality. They are contrasted with the Samaritan who saw the man in need, was moved with pity, and practiced hospitality by caring for him. Jesus says that the Good Samaritan is the one who loved his neighbour. And then in verse 37, Jesus says that we should go and do likewise. This parable always, rightly, inspires us to do good in the world, by showing hospitality to strangers, and loving our neighbour.
But, remember that we need balance in our spiritual life. The greatest commandment is to love God AND neighbour. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and Levite (and the Lawyer who asks the question) are so focused on solitude with God that they neglect showing hospitality to strangers. At the end of this parable, Jesus exhorts listeners to love their neighbours.
In the story of Mary and Martha, it is the opposite: Martha is so focused on showing hospitality that she neglects her solitude with God. At the end of this story, Jesus exhorts her to spend more time in solitude with God. Jesus is correcting an imbalance in each case.
Let’s now look at the story of Mary and Martha. Martha often gets overly criticized for what she does in this story. She is practicing Biblical hospitality, just like we saw the rich woman doing in 2 Kings. In 2 Kings 4:8, a wealthy woman practices hospitality to strangers by urging Elisha to have a meal in her home. It becomes a food ministry, basically, because he eventually eats there every single time he goes through her town. This hospitality grows even more when she decides to provide him with his own little house. Martha is practicing hospitality in the tradition of this women from 2 Kings.
Also, in the larger context of Luke chapter 10, Martha is doing what’s right. We didn’t read the beginning of Luke chapter 10, but starting in 10:1, Jesus sent out the 72. He tells them that some towns will welcome them and some won’t. Woe to the towns that don’t. But, Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a town and it’s people welcome you, eat what is set before you” (Luke 10:8). So fast forward to Luke 10:38: we have Jesus in the home of Mary and Martha. What have they done? They have welcomed him. Martha is serving him food. This is exactly what we would hope people would do based on what Jesus said to the 72 at the beginning of chapter 10. I was reading an article about this story this week by Adele Reinhartz, and she makes the case, and I think she’s right, that when we enter into Mary and Martha’s lives in these short verses, we are seeing them at the moment of “conversion, of turning to Jesus as saviour” (Women Like This. pg. 169). Both of them are disciples.
Martha is doing what’s good. She is practicing the spiritual discipline of hospitality. But she gets annoyed because she is doing it all by herself. I think that many of us in the room can relate to how Martha was feeling in that moment. It is interesting what she does. She doesn’t run out into the other room and start reprimanding her sister. Instead, she tells Jesus in verse 40 how annoyed she is with Mary. That’s exactly what we should do when we get annoyed with each other: pray about it.
As I said before, we need balance in our lives between the spiritual discipline of hospitality and the spiritual discipline of solitude. When we start to get annoyed and frustrated by practicing the spiritual discipline of hospitality, it is a sign that we need more solitude in our lives. It is a sign that we need to spend more time alone with God, in prayer. It is not a sign that practicing hospitality is bad. It is not a sign that we are doing it wrong. It is a sign that we are out of balance. We’ve practiced hospitality at the expense of solitude. We need balance in our spiritual lives. We need both hospitality and solitude. Jesus says this to Martha in verse 41, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Jesus is not saying that practicing hospitality is bad. He’s just said at the beginning of chapter 10 that towns that practice hospitality will be blessed. He’s also just told the story of the Good Samaritan where the whole point is that we need to be willing to practice hospitality in order to lead a healthy Christian life. Here, in the story with Mary and Martha, Jesus is bringing balance. The greatest commandment is to love God AND neighbour. In this story, what Martha really needs is time alone with God. Sitting at the feet of Jesus is just as essential to the Christian life as caring for those in need. Loving God and loving neighbour are two sides of the same coin. The Christian life is a balance of solitude and hospitality.
When we think about Lent and the spiritual disciplines of solitude and hospitality, it is important to examine ourselves. We can ask ourselves whether we have become like the priest and the Levite, so concerned with spending time alone with God that we have neglected others. Or whether we have become like Martha, so worried and distracted by serving others that we have neglected our time alone with God. What is needed in our lives? What kind of fast can we participate in that will help to bring balance back into our lives so that we can live out the fullness of the greatest commandment to love God and neighbours?
There is not a right answer that applies to everyone. The Lawyer and Martha had spiritual imbalance in different ways. Jesus replied to the Lawyer’s question by encouraging him to practice hospitality and likewise to Martha’s complaint by encouraging her to practice solitude. As I have been reading about these two spiritual disciplines, it has become abundantly clear that they really are two sides of the same coin. One way to think about this is, in the words of Heidi Haverkamp: “The fruit of Christian solitude is genuine hospitality.” In other words, how do we know if our solitude is bearing fruit? If we are also responding to others with genuine hospitality, then our time alone with God is bearing fruit. Let me share some examples from the lives of famous Christians.
Benedict of Nursia is the man who wrote the Rule of St. Benedict. He started monastic communities that always welcomed and housed strangers. But he did not set out to do that. He was educated in Rome and afterward decided to be a hermit. Let me read his beginnings to you from Heidi Haverkamp’s book Holy Solitude: “Benedict found a suitable cave in the mountains above [the] town [of Subiaco] and lived there as a hermit for three years, seeking God through fasting, prayer, and penance. If Benedict was hoping for complete solitude, he didn’t get it. Not long after he settled into his cave, local shepherds discovered him. Benedict must have felt compassion for them because instead of telling them to go away, tradition says that he taught and prayed with them…. If he had been a grump, he would’ve been left alone, but he wasn’t and before long, word spread from the shepherds, to the townspeople, then all over the region, that a wise and holy man was living among them. People began to visit Benedict for counsel, and some men asked to join him in his religious life. [So much for being a hermit.] A monastic community formed around him, and it wasn’t long before there were twelve small communities across the mountains, all overseen by Benedict.” … We can see in Benedict’s life that he sought solitude. He decided to fast from people. He left Rome to live in a cave alone with God. And God brought balance to his life. He was doing a great job loving God, and God brought people, strangers, to Benedict so that he could also love people.
There is one more story from Henry Nouwen’s life that captures very well the fact that the fruit of Christian solitude is genuine hospitality. He wrote: “I remember several years ago becoming so pressed by the demands of teaching at Yale that I took a prayer sabbatical to the Trappist monastery at Genesco, NY. No teaching, lecturing, or counseling-- just solitude and prayer.
“The second day there, a group of students from Genesco College walked in and asked, ‘Henri, can you give us a retreat?’
“Of course at the monastery that was not my decision, but I said to the abbot, ‘I came here from the university to get away from that type of thing. These students have asked for five meditations, an enormous amount of work and preparation. I don’t want to do it.’
“The abbot said, ‘You’re going to do it.’
“‘What do you mean? Why should I spend my sabbatical time preparing all those things?’
“‘Prepare?’ he replied. ‘You’ve been a Christian for forty years and a priest for twenty, and few high school students want to have a retreat. Why do you have to prepare? What those boys and girls want is to be part of your life in God for a few days. If you pray for half an hour in the morning, sing in our choir for an hour, and do you spiritual reading, you will have so much to say you could give ten retreats.’
“The question, you see,” wrote Henri, “is not to prepare but to live in a state of ongoing preparedness so that, when someone who is drowning in the world comes into your world, you are ready to reach out and help. It may be at 4 o’clock, 6 o’clock, or 9 o’clock. One time you call it preaching, the next time teaching, then counselling, or later administration. But let them be part of your life in God-- that’s ministering.” (A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, Reuben P. Job & Norman Shawchuck, 1983).
Just like Benedict, when Henri tried to fast from people, God sent people to him because the greatest commandment is to love God AND neighbour; and the fruit of Christian solitude is genuine hospitality.
There is always an ebb and flow in our lives between a need for more solitude with God and a need to practice hospitality. That balance and the correcting of an imbalance is a natural part of deepening our roots in Jesus. As we seek God in solitude, the fruit of that is genuine hospitality. And as we practice hospitality, our need for solitude with God will grow. As we live our lives, following Jesus, may we deepen our roots in Christ by loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves. Amen.