Saturday, July 20, 2013

Between 4 & 5-Star Service

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Roving I

Sisters and brothers, when you visit a store, or a hotel, or a restaurant, what kind of service impresses you? What are the kinds of things the staff might do that might make you sit up and take notice? In a good way. What are the actions that might even make you consider writing a note of thanks and praise? What are the things that make the difference for you between 4-star and 5-star service?

For me, the difference lies in the distinction between what I call provision and reception. What do I mean? I may be wrong, but I suspect that many of us often think of service in terms only of provision. We speak, after all, of providing a service. And that is, in a way, accurate. Good service does mean providing something. And providing it well. If I go to a restaurant, for example, I expect the food to be tasty, and served in a timely fashion. I expect the wait staff to be polite and knowledgeable. I expect the premises to be clean. The ambience inviting. These are things I expect a good restaurant to provide. And I judge the quality of service according to how well such provisions are made.

But that’s what I might expect from any good restaurant. Those are things that any reasonable patron might expect. Usually. Ordinarily. But what’s the difference between a good restaurant like that and an even better one? What’s the difference between 4-star and 5-star service? Perhaps we may think that the difference lies in the provision of even more things. Like maybe offering lemonade instead of plain water when the customer walks in. But I’m not sure. I think the difference lies rather in how well the restaurant responds not just to the usual, but to the unusual. Not just to the ordinary, but to the out-of-the-ordinary. If I have a certain food allergy, for example. How able and willing is the staff to change the menu to cater to my need? For me, great service is not just about providing more and more things. But providing what truly meets the needs and desires of the one being served. Truly receiving the individual patron. Who may have very particular, even unusual needs. 4-star service may be only about provision. But 5-star service is really about reception.

I mention this because, as you probably have noticed, our Mass readings for today are all about service. In the first reading, when God appears in the form of three unknown travellers, Abraham welcomes them in these words: Do not pass your servant by. In the second reading, Paul speaks about how he became the servant of the church. And, in the gospel, we hear about how Martha was distracted with all the serving. What’s more, our readings are not only about service rendered to just anyone. Our readings invite us to reflect on service rendered to God. The divine Patron. Also, our readings are not just about ordinary service. Not just about good service. But better service. Greater service. 5-star service.

At first glance, it may seem that service of God is really only a matter of provision. And even more provision. The first reading, for example, gives us a very detailed description of the many things that Abraham provided for his three guests. He offered them bread and meat. Cream and milk. And then he stood by and waited upon them while they ate. In the second reading, Paul describes his service in terms of a responsibility. God made me responsible, he says, for delivering God’s message to you. For proclaiming to the people, providing them with, God’s good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is Paul’s service.

And we could probably be forgiven for remaining with this impression–for thinking that service is only about providing–if not for the gospel. For here, the one who seems to be doing her very best to provide for her guest, is precisely the one whom Jesus gently reprimands for offering the less satisfactory service. Martha is doing all the work. And very important work. She is busying herself preparing everything necessary for feeding the Lord. Everything that Abraham does in the first reading. Without Martha’s work, Jesus would go hungry. And yet, the Lord says that it is Mary who has chosen the better part. It is Mary who has provided the greater service.

One way to resolve this apparent contradiction is to look beyond the activities of provision to the attentiveness of reception. Let us consider again what exactly it is that makes Abraham’s service stand out in the first reading. Notice the unusual nature of the situation. Notice how God chooses to arrive during the hottest part of the day. A time when people in their right minds would be resting. As Abraham himself appears to have been doing. Sitting by the entrance to his tent. Instead of running around. Working up a sweat. Struggling to put a meal together. And yet, this is exactly what Abraham ends up doing when these unexpected visitors arrive. Abraham responds generously to the very particular needs of his very particular guests. He receives them even though they choose to arrive at a very inconvenient time. Reception and not just provision. This is what makes Abraham’s service greater.

But there’s something even more. Despite the already high level of  hospitality shown by Abraham and his wife Sarah, God calls them to an even greater receptivity. Notice how the reading ends with a promise. Not enough that Abraham should be willing to receive God in the heat of the noonday sun. He and his wife are called to go even further. They, who are long past the age of childbirth, are invited to receive into their hearts an incredible pledge. To receive into their lives an impossible gift. I shall visit you again next year without fail, Abraham is told, and your wife will then have a son. A post-menopausal woman bearing a child. This is an idea that not even Sarah is able to receive. At least not at first. Further on in the book of Genesis, we’re told that she laughed when she heard this. It was simply too incredible to be true. And yet, this was the hospitality that God required of her and her husband. This was the greater service she was being asked to provide. A service she could only perform by first being willing to receive God’s incredible gift.

And isn’t this also what sets Mary apart from Martha in the gospel? Even though it may seem that Mary does nothing useful, she really provides the Lord with the one thing that he needs. The one thing for which he hungers. For Jesus is no ordinary guest. He is God’s greatest gift to us. The gift that wants to be received. The Word-Made-Flesh who yearns, more than anything else, to be heard, and heeded, and lived. By allowing herself to be distracted with all the serving, by all the providing, Martha fails to give the Lord what he wants most of all. Even if she may have provided everything else that an ordinary guest might have required. And so her hospitality remains good. But no more. Mary’s is the better part. Mary’s the 5-star service.

And I suspect, sisters and brothers, that many of us find this difficult to accept. I know I do. Especially because we live here in Singapore. Where everything is about being active, and keeping ourselves ever more busy. Where, when we think of serving God, what often comes to mind are probably thoughts of adding more and more activities to our daily schedule. Or of joining more groups or ministries in the church. Never mind if that’s what God really wants of us. And yet, our readings today remind us that perhaps what we need is first to pay attention to what God might be offering us. First to receive God’s gift. First to listen to God’s call. And, in so doing, to choose the better part.

Sisters and brothers, how might we provide God with what God wants? How might we offer God the truly 5-star service today?


  1. O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
    You know my sitting down and my rising up;
    You understand my thought afar off.
    You comprehend my path and my lying down,
    And are acquainted with all my ways.

    You have led me to an uneven road, putting me to the test with the gift you have given me. It was true that for a moment, I do not know how to apply this gift in my routines.

    I got drained mentally and emotionally, not sure where to go, and when phobia crept up from within, You sent me my
    Guardian angel from Heaven,
    Watching beside me to lead me right, Fold your wings round me, guard me with love; Softly sing songs of Heaven to me.

    You sent me this message: "if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing." Indeed, when faced with difficult and challenging situations, I was swayed and forgotten the Gift you have given me.

    Thank you for reminding me of my service to you, O Lord, Your Commandments to me. I shall remain focus in order to harvest the Gift you have given me.

    "Love is patient, love is kind.
    It is not rude, it does not seek its own interests,
    it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
    it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth."

    Pisti, Elpida, Agapi

  2. About Martha and Mary - this very familiar Gospel story - as I reflect more deeply on it - I can sense Our Lord inviting me to enter more deeply into HIM - and to dare to enter into HIS LOVING EMBRACE.

    yet, despite my trust and faith in our God who loves me dearly, in my limitations, I too have my fears and yet, it is only when I dare to let go and let God - that's where God comes to meet me...

    Lord, please show me to let go into YOU, so that I can render the kind of SERVICE which you would like to receive.

    Like Mary, may I learn to BE at Your feet, to listen, and to grow into my true self - so as to give You Glory.


    Seeing Is Believing
    22 July 2013

  3. Over the past week, I learnt that indeed, Mary has found the better part - to sit at the Lord's feet and just BE with God - to be ALONE IN GOD.

    there is a certain inexplicable JOY just to sit at the Lord's feet and yes, I can relate with Mary - thank God for His gift and blessings to grant me this grace... just to BE IN GOD... to DWELL in God's Love.

    Seeing Is Believing
    25 July 2013

  4. Retreat giver M Williams explains the relationship between service, love and intimacy: Service for God flows from love from God which flows from intimacy with God. The progression is from intimacy to love to service, and not the other way round. It took me a while to appreciate this, as the serving Martha is a strong presence in me.

    Perhaps Mary in the Gospel is the part of me who can enjoy intimacy with God by virtue of being created and unconditionally loved by my Father. Yet sadly, our world more often than not conditions her children to earn love and acceptance through dutiful service. The Martha in us rightfully feels indignant that she has to work so hard for love and approval.

    Our Lord is gently leading us back to our birthright through his affirmation of Mary's choice. Mary is able to say "No" to working for love, and "Yes" to the one thing asked of her: to sit at the feet of God's intimate presence through Christ, and receive divine love first! And from this place of deep gratitude and creative response, joyful 5-star service will follow.


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