When I tell people that I wrote a book about introverts and church life, their mental Bibles often flip open to Mary and Martha. Martha is the quintessential extrovert, scurrying about to keep all the plates spinning, her attention darting from one task to another. Mary is the archetypal introvert, sitting quietly and lost in thoughtfulness, unaware of the urgent duties of the moment. But while it is tempting to read the story as a biblical forerunner to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I think the scene poses a different issue: What is the nature of true hospitality?

Conversations about hospitality often turn around a person’s eagerness to invite others into their home and their skill in serving food and drink. If that is the proper definition, then Martha is close — but her hospitality is mismanaged. Perhaps a Martha Stewart party book would advise her to prepare food in advance so she wouldn’t be so stressed when Jesus arrives. But we must take our definition of hospitality deeper. We have all been in settings in which delightful aromas wafted yet the air somehow smelled of unwelcome. Comfortable chairs, massive amounts of food, and overflowing glasses are not necessarily synonymous with hospitality.

Martha is “distracted by many things,” observes Jesus, and my guess is that Martha has made a common mistake: she has focused on the trappings of hospitality but has missed its heart. Carving a turkey is not as valuable as carving out real space for others, to help them feel at home with us and not just give them a chair at our dinner table. “Mary has chosen the better part,” Jesus says, and I think the better part is him.

True hospitality is about receiving people. Martha has focused on filling Jesus’ cup, but Mary seeks to have her cup filled by him. More specifically, what Mary chooses to do, as Luke tells us, is to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to what he says. Here is a picture of true hospitality: a host listening to her guest. Mary’s interests are beautifully simple; she focuses her attention on Jesus, directing her energies toward him and opening up space to receive him. Hospitality that does not include listening is not true hospitality.

Martha Minds

Mary’s example of hospitality resonates with those of us on the introverted side of the spectrum. For many of us, the more “traditional” definition of hospitality is unappealing, because our homes are our sanctuaries. Our overstimulating world divides us from ourselves, and we feel like we leave pieces wherever we go. Thus we flee to our homes, our safe-harbors where we can be remade. Inviting someone into that space sometimes feels impossible — a task that would force us into scurrying around like Martha, rather than sitting quietly to receive as Mary. Admittedly, we can be territorial about our physical spaces, but despite unfriendly appearances we do so not to reject others but to re-emerge filled with energy to offer to our work and relationships.

As we shift our understanding of hospitality from the more obvious, exterior actions like welcoming someone into our home to something that encompasses the broader and, perhaps, more biblical practices represented by Mary’s rapt attention at the feet of Jesus, something freeing happens. Because focused, open listening is a form of hospitality that introverts can get behind. Generally, we process silently, chewing on information in the privacy of our minds. We may prefer to perch on the fringes than to sit in the center. Listening is our default. Listening, we introverts think, is something that I can do. Even as I say that, however, I wonder whether listening, for prideful human beings (introverted or extroverted), is ever truly natural. I wonder if we excel in the outward trappings of listening while missing the heart of it.