16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Alan Light
My dear friends, what do you think makes the difference between 4-star and 5-star service? When you visit a restaurant, or a hotel, what kind of service impresses you? What are the things the staff might do that make you sit up and take notice? In a good way. Perhaps even prompt you to take the trouble to write a complimentary note of thanks?
For me, the difference lies between 2 things: 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. When I eat at a restaurant, I expect the food to be tasty. And served in a timely fashion. The staff polite and knowledgeable. The premises clean. The ambience inviting… These are things I expect a good restaurant to provide. And I judge the quality of service by how well such provisions are made.
But these are things that any reasonable patron might expect from any good restaurant. What makes the difference between a good restaurant like that and an even better one? What makes the difference between 4-star and 5-star service? Perhaps we may think that the difference lies merely in the provision of more things. Like maybe offering free lemonade instead of just water. Or scented towels instead of paper ones.
I’m not sure. I tend to think the difference lies rather in how well the restaurant responds not just to the usual, but also to the unusual. Not just to the ordinary, but also to the extra-ordinary. If I have a food allergy, for example. How able and willing is the restaurant to change its menu to cater to my need? For me, great service is not just about providing more things. But providing what meets the specific desires of the one being served. Which means truly receiving the particular 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 have probably 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 by saying, 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 about service rendered to not just anyone. But 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 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. To provide people with God’s good news of salvation in Christ Jesus. This is Paul’s service.
So that we could probably be forgiven for thinking that service is only about provision. Were it 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 busies herself preparing everything necessary for feeding the Lord. Much like 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. 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 prepare a meal. 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 idea. To welcome 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 herself is able to receive. At least not at first. Further on in the book of Exodus, we’re told that she laughed to herself when she heard this. It was 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 perform only by first being willing to receive God’s unbelievable gift.
And isn’t receptivity also what sets Mary apart from Martha in the gospel? Even though it may seem that Mary does nothing useful, she provides the Lord with the one thing for which he hungers most. For Jesus is no ordinary guest. He is God’s greatest Gift to us. The Present-from-on-High who wants to be received. The Word-Made-Flesh, who yearns above all to be heard and heeded. To be received and put into practice. By allowing herself to be distracted with all the serving, side-tracked 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 Mary’s is even better. Mary’s is the 5-star service.
I’m not sure, my dear friends, but I suspect that many of us find this difficult to understand and accept. I know I do. Especially because we live in Singapore. Where so much emphasis is often placed on being busy and active. Where parents may work very hard to provide for their children. But have no time to pay them much attention. And where, whenever we think of serving God, what often comes to mind are thoughts of adding more activities to our daily schedule. More events to our parish calendar. More ministries to the list of those we wish to join. Never mind if this is what God really wants of us. And yet, our readings remind us that perhaps more than doing more things for God, what we first need to consider is what God has done and is doing for us. What God is offering us. The better to receive God’s generous gift. To listen to God’s empowering call. To respond to God’s inspiring initiative. And, in so doing, to render God the greater service.
Sisters and brothers, as individuals and as a parish, what must we do to better receive the presence of God into our lives? How shall we move from 4-star to 5-star service today?