Serving and Listening

“Whoever does these things shall never be overthrown” (Psalm 15:7)

Serving others can be a rewarding endeavor in and of itself. A 2006 study at the National Institutes of Health strongly suggests that our brains are somehow “wired” to feel pleasure when we put the interests of others ahead of our own. It comes as no surprise therefore that those engaged in the so-called helping professions report significantly higher job satisfaction than do those who make a living simply by selling their time.

In today’s reading from the book of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah understand the joy of serving. Hungry strangers appear out of nowhere in the heat of the day, and immediately the strangers are invited to share in the shade of a tree. Sarah prepares cakes. Abraham causes a calf to be slaughtered and broiled.

It comes as something of a shock that Jesus appears to condemn a woman’s helping impulse in today’s gospel. Martha, having the Lord as a guest in her home, does everything she can to make him comfortable. Her sister Mary, on the other hand, merely “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” So Martha “came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”‘ To which Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; . . . Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:39-42).

Is Jesus, in fact, belittling Martha’s efforts to be helpful – condemning the good feelings they bring to her as selfish and therefore sinful? Not at all.

Instead, in commending Mary’s “mere” sitting and listening, Jesus is greatly expanding the meaning of being of service. Serving others consists not only in meeting their physical needs. It also involves honoring their spirit — taking them seriously enough to listen to them. And in truth, taking others seriously enough to listen to them almost always makes us feel good.

In the simple act of meeting the physical needs of strangers, Abraham and Sarah end up serving the Lord himself. And in their gifts of both practical and spiritual service to another, the sisters Martha and Mary encounter Jesus. “To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you,” Paul writes (Col. 1:27).

Look It Up

In Acts 20:27, an otherwise unknown saying of Jesus is recalled: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” How did this truth play out in the life of Paul?

Think About It

What benefit do we bring to others when we seriously listen to what they have to say?


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