How To Be a Gracious Host: Three Tips from Mary and Martha

1280px-TraditionalThanksgivingThe first time I held a grown-up dinner party cured me of a fussy, procrastinated entertaining style forever. The morning of my get-together, I gathered a set of recipes (all complicated, all time-consuming) and made a shopping list that included stops at the grocery store, a butcher, specialty wine store, and Macy’s for fancy stemware. I also planned to clean my condo and bake a cake from scratch. Oh yes, and care for my colicky newborn baby. And polish silver. And iron table linens (I’m from the South, enough said?). By the time my husband came home from work, the kitchen was covered in flour and dirty dishes, I hadn’t showered, and guests were due in half an hour. We managed to get it together, but I’m pretty sure my eye twitched the entire night. Martha Stewart, I was not. Martha of biblical fame, I was.

Ever since Jesus rebuked her for her stressed-out entertaining style, Martha is infamous for having her priorities off-kilter when the Lord came to call. While Martha got everything ready (hello, this table isn’t going to set itself!), her sister Mary chillaxed at the feet of the Lord, hanging onto his every word and gaining his respect for choosing the better part.

I have been Mary too, but not in the way Jesus commended. On another occasion, I was determined to be a calm, laid-back host to a family with three little children. I reminded myself that the food wasn’t the point (the guests were) and I made a meal from items on hand (no grocery store needed). I was so proud of myself for restraining my inner perfectionist until I pulled the lasagna from the oven. It was missing some key ingredient; the whole thing was hard, inedible, and downright horrible. We all picked at it anyway, but throughout the evening the kids would whimper to their mother, “I’m hungry.” Since I hadn’t made a grocery store run, I had hardly anything else to offer. Later, when the adults were looking forward to a cup of coffee, I realized I was out of coffee filters. My intent to be “all about the guests” translated into a careless and almost inhospitable style.

The Mary/Martha Story Provides Surface-Level Lessons Too

Poor old Mary and Martha—much ink has been spilled over the years about their own entertaining debacle. The deeper heart lessons from the story are well discussed in books and are frequent topics in sermons. Clearly, the Lord calls us to be more like Mary when it comes to taking time away from our busy lifestyles to spend time with him. But around this time of year, it can be helpful and fun to look at the surface of the story for some practical holiday entertaining tips. I can certainly relate to Martha’s desire to entertain well, while longing for the kind of freedom Mary must have felt to just chuck the chuck roast and relax with special company. Surely there is a way to incorporate the best of both?

The praise for Mary’s laissez-faire approach to the work of entertaining is valuable because more than ever we need to discern what is a trifling Martha distraction (is my gathering truly better if I’ve arranged a Pinterest-worthy centerpiece?) and what deserves our rapt Mary-like attention (do my guests feel valued?)

And yet.

There is no getting around the fact that it takes work to produce the smells, tastes, and glorious comforts of the holiday season. Few of us realize what it takes to host Thanksgiving or fill the house with the warm, sugary, one-sniff-and-I’m-10-years-old-again smells of Christmas until it’s our turn and we want the same things for our friends and families. Making sensory holiday memories can mean we labor at the very things the Lord seems to have rebuked in Martha: Frantic cleaning, time-intensive cooking, and spectacular efforts in the name of a really good cheesecake.

Was Jesus Against Good Food?

It’s safe to assume Jesus wasn’t against gracious entertaining; his first public miracle spared the Cana wedding hosts from the embarrassment of running out of wine. He seemed to be all about gathering around good food; many of his great teaching moments happened while enjoying a meal at someone’s table— often after he invited himself to eat at it. We know that like any good host, he felt keenly aware when those in his company were hungry. He worked miracles on more than one occasion to feed bread and fish to thousands of his followers. The Last Supper imparts the sense that Jesus was a man of meals— leaving Christians with directions to forevermore bring food and drink to their lips in remembrance of him. Jesus may have famously fasted for forty days and nights, but let’s not forget he was falsely accused of being “a glutton and drunkard.” Perhaps the implication is that he delighted so much in food and drink that it drew the Pharisees’ attention and ire (Matthew 11:19).

Three Basic Tips for Gracious Entertaining 

If Jesus didn’t insist on asceticism or extravagant showiness at gatherings, then we needn’t go so far in the name of fellowship either. As we approach the season in which we most often associate homemade food and gathering together, here are three thoughts for combining the best of host Mary and host Martha, with a generous dash of the heart of host Jesus:

1. Thoughtful Pre-Planning is the Sweet Spot Between Stressed and Careless.

Can’t you picture Mary and Martha on the night before Jesus came over? Maybe Mary was like, “We’ll figure something out.” Maybe Martha said, “Figure it out? This is Jesus. We’re going all out.” As it unfolded, Jesus might not have had a meal if it had been left to Mary. But let’s fill in some imaginary details and pretend that Martha’s stress came from a desire to impress Jesus without proper pre-planning. On a strictly surface level, neither approach to entertaining is desirable, which is why this season, those of us who tend to stress when things aren’t perfect should embrace the mantra: “Do ahead and make ahead.” Those of us who tend to wait until the last minute and come up short might embrace the mantra too.

I’m sure thoughtful pre-planning is a given for the seasoned host, but it was pure epiphany for me. It makes such a difference to decide on a plan early and do as much as possible ahead of time, so that little time is spent in the kitchen when friends and family are over. Delicious baked breads and desserts can be made weeks ahead of time and frozen. Many cold dishes can be made the night before (and will taste even better as the flavors blend). The crock-pot is the coolest. It’s true that with certain dishes nothing beats straight from the stovetop, but for some hosts, that kind of cooking creates a stressful atmosphere. We should adjust our menus for everyone’s sake, including our own. Thoughtful pre-planning means we can be Mary and Martha and be fully present with our guests while enjoying great food.

2. Be Intentional About the Purpose of Entertaining.

The purpose is not to impress our family and friends with our decorating skills or culinary magic. The purpose of bringing people together around a meal in our home is to delight in who they are and show them love.

We can keep this goal at the forefront of our efforts by protecting our ability to enjoy our guests and carefully considering their needs. We may need to edit out everything else that causes needless stress. Here’s where Mary shone: Jesus needed to connect more than he needed gourmet food and Mary was in tune with that more than Martha. Communicators are encouraged to “know their audience.” As hosts, we should know our guests. How can we adjust our own expectations and efforts to meet their specific needs? Is there anything we are stressed about doing that is not based on serving others, but is self-serving? Is something silly getting in the way of our ability to enjoy our company?

One of the best ways to show love is by praying for our guests before they arrive. As we’re setting the table, as we’re preparing the food, we can put each guest before the Lord in prayer. We can pray that heart needs will be met—that souls will be warmed, loneliness eased, and funny bones tickled. We can pray to get beyond our fears (what if the turkey is dry?) and into a state of complete other-mindedness. As last-minute stress kicks in, we can pray that God will give us a demeanor of contagious joy. Those moments spent before the Prince of Peace can overflow into a gracious spirit that gives life, enjoys others, and meets needs.

3. Invite Someone Unexpected.

Here’s where Jesus’ entertaining style shows up repeatedly in Scripture and likens most to true hospitality, which is traditionally defined as entertaining strangers. It’s natural to obsess over guest lists, to control them. We want our gatherings to be fun and flawless, and sometimes there is that one person whom we fear will throw the whole thing off. Luke 14:13 says, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” We can broaden this list to include anyone we might tend to leave out. Maybe someone is much older or much younger. Maybe someone is socially awkward or even obnoxious. Maybe someone always sits alone at church and we feel weird approaching him. Maybe there is a single among marrieds or a married among singles. Maybe someone seems like they want to be left alone. Pray to know if you should invite someone else and then follow through. “You will be blessed,” Luke writes. It is humbling when we think we are blessing someone else and they bless us instead.

I still consider myself a novice entertainer, but I’m learning more with each attempt. I recently held a brunch for some women in my neighborhood, many of whom are retirement-aged. I decorated the house and set the table the night before. Everything on the menu was make-ahead and I had time to pray for each guest before they arrived. I loved feeling fully present— not stressed— and I loved that the food was thoughtfully prepared too. I hope Mary and Martha could have both given me a little wink and a smile.

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is counting on the holiday season to make her third trimester go by quickly. She is a writer and a mother of four young children— the fifth is due in January. Follow her on Twitter @RachelBryars

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  • Ansley Russell

    Rachel, this is so appropriate and timely for me! As a newlywed, I’m hosting my first family Christmas celebration at my house…..and I’m terrified! So I’m grateful for these reminders and I prepare my home and my heart to celebrate with those I hold most dear.
    I hope everything is going well with you and yours!! Every time I pass by your parents’ house, I am reminded of our slumber parties and playing Guess Who? in your bedroom late at night 🙂

    • Rachel Bryars

      Hi Ansley- You will do great! 🙂 I can’t wait to see pictures. Much love to you and your family!