Serving and Being Served

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. Martha, about whom I’ve written before.

The first time we encounter Martha in the Gospels is in the passage from St. Luke that recounts Jesus going to the home of Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus. While Mary sat at the feet of Jesus listening to him speak, Martha bustles around “burdened with much serving.” When she complains to Jesus and asks him to instruct her sister to help her, he replies, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

Many of us find it more comfortable to serve than to let ourselves be served., Yet, writing about this passage, Sr. Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun, writes that Luke uses this incident “to stress the point that, in the presence of Jesus – no ordinary guest – the only proper thing to do is to allow him to feed us, to serve us.”

There is nothing wrong with serving others, and we are called to do so. But we also have to allow ourselves to be served as well. Making a link I had never considered before, Sr. Burrows writes:

For me, it is not without significance that Luke relates the Martha and Mary story immediately after the parable of the Good Samaritan. We can see that the Samaritan, consciously or not, was listening to God, looking at God and therefore recognized him immediately in the wounded man, and set to work to minister to him, for we minister to God, serve God, only in our neighbor. The priest and Levite were, like Martha, intent on serving God. Presumably they were hastening on their way to the temple to perform their respective religious duties.

The comparison reminds us that each of us is called to be both Martha and Mary. Serve others, of course. But “Only if we have the heart of Mary will our service of others be selfless.”

And that means taking time to listen, not only to serve.