Shortly after we moved to Florida, my wife, Diane decided to help out at the Wildwood Soup Kitchen. And like a good deacon, who always listens to the deacon’s wife, I too was volunteered. Now, a dozen years later, Diane’s the Thursday cook and I’m the Thursday captain or head flunky.
It’s a wonderful ministry, a true ecumenical ministry in which well over 200 volunteers from more than 30 local churches participate. Last year we served nearly 90,000 meals and will no doubt exceed that number this year. Now, one thing I’ve learned from this experience is that people volunteer for all sorts of reasons.
Some love to cook, and just can’t pass up the opportunity to spend a good part of the day cooking 300 meals.
Some don’t know what to do with the free time that retirement brings, and volunteer just to stay busy.
For others it’s a kind of social event, a chance to form friendships with other volunteers.
Some volunteer out of a sense of guilt. Their affluence is a burden to them, and they hope to ease that burden by helping those in need.
Some simply want to serve others, and the soup kitchen is a wonderful way to satisfy that need.
When it comes right down to it, it’s really a ministry of hospitality; and yet those who exercise this ministry are driven by so many different motives. It’s not unlike what we just heard in today’s Gospel reading from Luke.
One day, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, the fullness of life and truth, walked into the living room of a pair of sisters named Martha and Mary. Both women immediately recognized the privilege of having Jesus in their home and set to work fulfilling the sacred duty of hospitality. The problem was, they had conflicting ideas of what that duty entailed.
Martha’s response is very recognizable, typical of how most of us would probably react.
Open the best wine, the expensive stuff, and brew some good coffee. Get out the good china and silver. Use whatever food you have in the pantry to whip up your best assortment of hot and cold dishes. And hope He won’t want a dessert.
My mother’s name was Martha, and once, when I was a teenager, I asked her if she’d be like the Martha in the Gospel if Jesus came to our house. Without a second’s hesitation, she said, “Oh, no, I’d call a caterer.”
Anyway, while Martha was busying herself in the kitchen, Mary took a different approach to hospitality. For her, the greatest compliment she could pay, greater even than the best of foods, was to give Jesus her full attention.
Now, we don’t hear from Mary in this passage, but it’s apparent she somehow knew that Jesus, the fullness of truth, had come to her home to nourish and transform her. She saw Jesus as a gift, and not to receive and unwrap this wonderful gift was an insult to the giver. And so Mary listened; she listened to the Word as He spoke the Word. Mary became to Jesus what no rabbi at the time would allow any woman to become…Mary became His disciple.
This was pretty radical stuff back then. Women were expected to prepare the meals and serve them, and certainly wouldn’t be praised for taking part in the discussions. Luke stresses that Jesus takes women seriously, that His words are for all people, men and women, and that salvation comes to all who listen to His words and act on them.
Luke certainly doesn’t relate this incident to endorse laziness, just as Martha isn’t criticized because she attended to her guest’s physical needs. In our first reading from Genesis, when God, in the form of three travelers, visits Abraham, it’s good that Abraham and Sara spare no expense. No, Martha’s hospitality isn’t the problem. The problem was that she allowed the activity of hospitality to become an end in itself. She subordinated discipleship to hospitality. And that hospitality, by becoming an end, also became a distraction, and turned her into a bit of a fussbudget, so much so that she actually got angry with her sister for not joining her.
You can almost feel the tension and pressure building up until it boils over and Martha vents her frustration…but she vents it on the wrong person. Notice that Martha attacks, not Mary, but Jesus Himself: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me” [Lk 10:40].
How authentically human of Martha – to work out her frustrations on the wrong person.
Now, if I were in Jesus’ place, my reaction would be, “Hey, Martha, why blame me?” But not Jesus. He turns to her, and repeating her name -- “Martha, Martha…” -- calms her down. Yes, Martha was, as Jesus told her, “anxious and worried about many things.”
Jesus doesn't rebuke her for serving Him – not at all. He simply tells her that there is something more important. He underlines the truth that they are blessed who hear the Word of God and keep it.
I’m sure a lot of you here remember the old Baltimore Catechism answer to the question, “Why did God make you?” Remember? “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” It’s still a very good answer. Before we can serve God, we must first know Him and love Him.
If our lives are spent solely in activity – only in the serving – we can’t take the time to know our God through prayer and attentiveness to His Word. It’s through prayer, and listening to His Word, and the grace of the sacraments, that we can come to know God, and develop the kind of personal relationship that Jesus wants with us. It’s only through that relationship that we can continue to deepen our love for God. And it’s through our love for God that we come to see Him in others, and can accept the call to serve Him by serving them.
Our service, then, must be grounded in love; for it is love, and only love, that calls the Christian to serve others: “… whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me [Mt 25:40].
And so for Christians, the two great commandments – loving God and loving our neighbor – merge into one, a single commandment of love.
Yes, hearing and reflecting on the Word of God in prayer is a condition for true, selfless, loving service of the Body of Christ. Martha didn’t appreciate this…not at first. And so she worried, and was anxious about things, as so many of us are. How human and how easy it is, just as it was for Martha, to become obsessed with busyness, to move those things – those things that are really just accidental parts of our lives -- to the center of our lives; and in doing so to send the true center of our lives to the sidelines.
This just cannot be. The fullness of truth, the fullness of life, the fullness of grace deserves our full attention. Jesus can’t be merely a part of our lives, but must be the focus of our lives, always at the very center.
In our excessively busy lives today, too often we don’t spend time on the important things. When Jesus knocks on your door and my door, when He enters our lives, just as He enters the soup kitchen dozens of times every day, certainly we should serve Him. But we should serve Him in love and attentiveness; listening to Him; and not allowing our service of receiving Jesus to distract us from Jesus Himself.