What do you do to fill your house with people? Usually one gives out invitations – by post, email or in person. I never thought about this before, but only complained that no one came to visit me. Then someone asked me: ‘have you actually invited someone to your home?’This is a very good question in many ways. After I have decided who I would like to come, and given the invitation, I begin behaving like Martha in the gospel. I worry about food, table decorations, tidiness in the living room and other fairly irrelevant details.
Putting myself in Matthew’s shoes, I wonder what his invitation was like. I don’t think there were all these things to think about in his time. For a proper meal in higher circles you reclined; that meant lying sideways on a narrow couch and taking your food from a low table in the middle. Sounds like utter luxury, doesn’t it? This is what Jesus came to when he dined with Matthew, apparently very soon after having called him as a disciple. What strikes me about the meal Jesus shared with Matthew and his friends is how unconcerned Matthew apparently was about the fact that Jesus did not at all belong to his kind of environment.
Imagine our garden or hall here filled with couches instead of chairs, and the food is served on low tables alongside. Using cutlery is of course out of the question, so we all eat with our fingers! By now I remember many lunches and some dinners at St Matthew’s, even formal ones, but none of them involved reclining at the table, and the fingers normally stayed clean. Nonetheless I always felt welcome and as if I was receiving a treat. Sometimes it felt awkward because I am (I suppose) the only vegetarian at St Matthews but never as if I did not belong. This is a very important aspect of hospitality because it means that here is also a place for outsiders and those at the margins of ‘respectable’ society. So perhaps it can be assumed that if Jesus came back next Sunday and there was a meal other than the Eucharist he would also be warmly welcomed, without anyone raising an eyebrow at his outdated dress or his hairstyle. But how would we recognise Him if he came in contemporary attire and without the tell-tale nail marks?
St Matthew, the tax collector called by Jesus made quite a journey: first he was a greedy man, filling his pockets with poor people’s money. Then he was called by a wandering preacher no one really knew at the time, but he responded immediately. He actually left behind the money he made that day to be with Jesus. And it gets even better: he invites Jesus for dinner with his friends! Matthew the ‘Taker’ becomes Matthew the ‘Giver’.
Here then we see the two sides of hospitality: being a host and a guest. How do you behave as a host? What are the characteristics of a good guest? I don’t know about you, but I sometimes feel uncomfortable or even annoyed when people pay me back for gifts I have given them. I have never been rich enough to give big gifts, so often these little presents were more tokens of my love or appreciation than anything of big material value. Sometimes I think being a host is a lot easier than being a guest, apart from the work to make guests welcome. How does it feel to receive something without being able to reciprocate? We are so used to being proactive and in the habit of doing things for others that gracefully accepting gifts – or hospitality – becomes quite difficult. It is probably a bit like allowing someone to wash your feet: getting into a mild state of embarrassment.
Another tricky task for some of us is to be good to ourselves. How easy it is to joyfully cook for guests, or for a partner, but how hard to treat oneself like a guest. Christians, and especially Christian women, have been eternally conditioned to put others first. Do not mistake me: I am not advocating a path of constant inconsiderate selfishness. However, we also need time to pamper ourselves, time to be a friend to ourselves and to spend time with God. If we put time and effort into self-care we are better able to give love and care, and be a host in many ways to others. This also affirms that we are just as important to God, and ourselves, as everyone else.
God – how do we invite him on a daily basis? Do we? For the clergy it seems to be easy because they mostly celebrate or concelebrate the Eucharist, but what about us ordinary lay people. We go to work early in the morning – often too early to consider participation in Morning Prayer. Some travel and go abroad frequently, some have their workplace where no church is nearby. What can be done? What would it be like if we very simply invited God to be our companion for the day?
What happens when the roles of host and guest are exchanged? Matthew turned from sinner to follower, and became a host and saint. I also think of the journey that Jesus made. He began his journey as a guest at the wedding of Cana; he attended meals at the house of Mary and Martha, ate with Peter and his family, and Matthew and Zachaeus also were his hosts. But at the Last Supper he was the one who hosted the Passover Meal and invited whoever he wanted, and apparently there were more guests than just The Twelve. How pleased Jesus must have been that he could do that for his friends and family.
Now, just as then, he invites us every time we come to the Eucharist to be a guest at God’s table. Can we all be gracious guests, accept the invitation, and see where it will lead us?