In today’s readings we have several examples of people who serve others. We begin by considering Abraham, sitting at the entrance of his tent. Most likely he is resting after having done various chores throughout the morning. At such a time, after finishing some hard work and with the day growing hot, most of us would be thinking that we had earned a bit of relaxation. If someone asked for our help, we might either tell them to wait a bit, or at best we might get up to help grudgingly, harboring some resentment for the imposition. But when Abraham looks up and sees three men standing nearby, he runs to greet them! He bows to the ground and asks if they will do him the favor of allowing him to serve them.
Throughout the rest of this reading we are impressed with Abraham’s sincere desire to serve his guests as quickly as he can, and with the best things he has available. He instructs Sarah to quickly make rolls from fine flour. He runs to the herd to pick out a choice steer and tells his servant to prepare it quickly. Finally, he brings the food to his guests and waits on them while they eat. He clearly considers it a great honor to have an opportunity to serve the three visitors.
In the second reading, St. Paul provides us with an even more profound example of one who serves. He writes to the Colossians, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body.” After his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Paul spent his life serving the Church. We know from his own writings and from the Acts of the Apostles that he traveled extensively, always teaching about Jesus, establishing local churches, writing many letters to encourage and admonish, and all the while working with his hands to provide for his own needs. During his travels he has been rejected, stoned, beaten, shipwrecked, hauled into court, and imprisoned. But here he says that he rejoices in his sufferings for the sake of his fellow Christians! Like Abraham, Paul does not serve grudgingly. He is not sitting in resentment for all the hardship and rejection he has experienced. He is joyful that he has been given the opportunity to give all that he has – his time, his energy, and even his physical health – to serve others.
Clearly the readings are teaching us that service of others is a privilege and a joy. If we view it rightly, we will be eager for the opportunity to serve. However, quite often we experience service more like Martha does in the Gospel. When Jesus comes to her home, she finds herself required to serve him – along with his many travelling companions. Before long she experiences his visit as a burden, not as a joyful opportunity to serve. Jesus reveals her inner disposition: she is “anxious and worried about many things.”
We see from this that service in itself, even serving the Lord, is not the essential matter. Martha, after all, was making great efforts to serve the Lord. She thought he would be served even better if her sister would join the work. But something is missing: where is her gratitude? Where is her love? Abraham and Paul had a different spirit. They were not simply busy activists. They knew that they had been richly blessed by God, and they were eager to make some return to him for his goodness to them. The true motivation for service is grateful love, which moves us to seek ways to give God something in return for his goodness. And since he does not need anything from us, the way we can give to him is by serving his people, our brothers and sisters, in love.
When our life is over, the only thing that will matter is how well we have learned to love. Whatever time or energy or money we have spent pursuing other goals will have been wasted. We cannot take our possessions, our fame, our honor, our power, our influence, our comforts, or any other worldly thing with us into the next life, only our love.
Mary in the Gospel is not wasting her time. She is not neglecting her duty. She knows that the way to grow in love begins with sitting at the feet of Jesus and learning from him. This is why the Lord honors her for choosing “the better part.” Love is not something which we can produce on our own. It is not something we can get more of by doing spiritual gymnastics. Love comes to us as a free gift from God. He is always ready and willing to give us this gift, but we must sit at his feet and open ourselves to receive it. Only when we listen first can we know best how to serve. Filled with the joy and gratitude which come from knowing God’s overwhelming love for us, we can genuinely put ourselves at the service of others, joyful to be able to give back to God a small return for his goodness to us.
How is my life dominated by anxious excessive activity? Do I serve others with grateful love or with resentment? In what ways can I enrich my prayer life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.