Download the Word file here: 130721 Attention in a World of Distraction

Luke 10. 38-42; Colossians 1.15-28; Psalm 15; Genesis 18. 1-10a.


A few years back, when I worked for a church organisation in London, I found a colleague making herself a cup of tea in the kitchen and looking considerably less than happy. I asked her what was wrong. “Oh, I’m having one of those days,” she replied. “You know, the kind where it feels as if, rather than getting to focus on what really needs attending to, your life has become a whole series of work interruptions occasionally punctuated by something that actually matters!”

I could sympathise instantly. We live in a world where the incentive to prove our worth by accumulating tasks, paid or otherwise, is considerable. Targets, tick boxes, outcome monitors and impact assessments are the modern technocratic tools which are supposed to ensure that all this rushing around amounts to something meaningful or useful. But it’s all too easy to bury the real treasures of life in a worthy thicket of to-do lists.

The lectionary readings for today come from very different times and places to twenty-first century Scotland, but they are a nevertheless a powerful corrective to the temptation delightfully summed up on an irreverent but instructive t-shirt you may have seen doing the rounds. “Jesus is coming”, it declares. “… look busy!”

Which brings us to that oh-so-famous gospel story of Martha and Mary. Before I examine this passage in a little more detail, I have to confess that I’m dubious about many of the elaborately moralising homiletic messages that get built on the edifice of this tale particular, where Martha is described as “worried and distracted by many things” and Mary is commended for her attention to Jesus.

When I was young, I remember hearing one sermon in which it was suggested, outrageously I would now say, that poor Martha was rightly chastised for wasting her time on “women’s work”, whereas the proper female part was taken by Mary, who sat at the feet of a male religious leader and listening obediently. I recount that one, simply to point out that the much more amenable alternative interpretation, namely “women’s work is doing theology, not doing the dishes” hasn’t always seemed as obvious as it does now, in a world where gender equality is thankfully much more likely to be taken as normative.

Obviously, if I had to choose between these two readings, I’d go for the latter one. But, in fact, what these competing readings might illustrate is that it is rather too easy to impose our concerns onto the biblical text, starting from a matrix of questions that come from our own, contemporary setting – whereas there might, in fact, be a rather different concern lurking in the stories, parables, actions and admonitions of (in this case) Luke’s Gospel.

In short, I would suggest that the story of Mary and Martha is not really addressing issues like gender roles, the right way to offer hospitality, or who should be doing the housework – any more than the equally famous story of the woman who pours a jar of expensive oil on Jesus’ feet is addressing systemic issues of wealth and poverty. Rather, they are both part of a web of gospel instructions about learning to attend to what is truly necessary – that is, the promise of God’s realm and its active presence, often disguised, in our midst.

This may become more obvious if we look at the sequence of passages of which the Martha and Mary story forms part. In our modern New Testaments it is tucked at the end of chapter ten, just after the parable of the Good Samaritan, where, you will remember, the despised stranger turns out to be the harbinger of God’s grace, rather than the pious religious types who miss the point (mercy towards the victim) completely.

In one sense the Martha and Mary tale works with that. In her cultural context, Martha is doing the right thing. Hospitality is crucial. In receiving guests you may be receiving angels, messengers of the divine, without even knowing it. That is what Abraham discovers in Genesis 18. Indeed, we would say, looking at the situation of today’s gospel from the outside, that this is precisely what has been visited upon these two sisters, who in St John’ are linked with a brother, Lazarus, and with Jesus’ home-from-home in Bethany, outside Jerusalem, incidentally. The difference between the two siblings – here, at any rate – is that Mary has noticed that attending to the guest is not purely a matter of doing things for the guest. Also, as it turns out, this particular guest is not just any old person passing through, but the bringer of a life-transforming new reality.

At this point, it is worth noting that Mary’s disposition to sit at the rabbi’s feet marks her out as a disciple, which is not uncontroversial. It is a matter of dispute as to how much Torah or religious law women were generally taught in Jesus’ day, but it was certainly very far from automatic and indeed denied or rebuked in some quarters. So Jesus accords Mary, as a woman, a place of honour in a way that may not be immediately evident from a surface reading of the text. She is there to learn and to transmit that learning. On the other hand, Martha is not condemned. She is doing her duty too, but sometimes duty alone can get on top of us and detract us from the deeper purpose it is meant to serve. There is sympathy here, and an invitation for her (and us as readers) to share in the “better part” which will not be taken away from Mary or from any who recognise it: that is, those who see the coming of God’s world-changing love in the things concerning Jesus.

All this is confirmed when we realise that there is an even more natural link between the Martha and Mary incident and the two passages that immediately follow it in Luke chapter eleven: namely, the giving of what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer (11. 1-4) and the invitation to perseverance in seeking God’s will and guidance (11. 5-13). These three passages are all about attention. At the end of the day, “there is need of only one thing”, Jesus advises Martha in the midst of her well-intentioned busyness. “The better part” to which Mary has perhaps inadvertently attended is the understanding that God comes to us not as words, tasks, duties or prescriptions, but in the flesh. This also is the message of the powerfully high Christology we find in the Letter to the Colossians. Here reconciliation is achieved through what is stressed to be “the fleshly body” of Christ open to all – not through abstract Gnostic teachings or onerous legal-religious requirements accessible only to a few initiates.

As is often the case, a revolutionary reversal of expectations and of the normal order of things lurks not far beneath the mundane, the homely and the domestic in the world of Jesus. The paradigmatic prayer he bequeaths us, immediately after the Martha and Mary episode, makes this clear. In focussing on the nature and purpose of God, bread is shared rather than hoarded, debts are mutually forgiven rather than used for recrimination, and the promise of rescue from the grasp of evil – all that divides us from God and from one another – is realised. That’s what the Lord’s Prayer is about.

It is by being formed as a people of renewed perspective and attention to these things that the gospel of hope is realised, we learn. But that is a lesson to come. Today’s step is to begin to identify and notice the many things that worry and distract us in our own lives – and to note that, like the structure of household life and hospitality which forms the basis of Martha and Mary being able to receive Jesus into their presence at all, many of these things are not trivial or unnecessary. Family, work (or lack of it), money (or lack of it), health (or lack of it) and other daily realities are not to be despised. The trick for handling them is to make time and space for re-orienting ourselves when it feels as if life is running us rather than the other way round.

This is what we do when we come together as a worshipping community. We speak, sing and act out the drama of our salvation, of the good news that makes us whole people rather than fractured people. In coming to this place we lay aside what troubles us. We give thanks. We listen and learn. We recognise ourselves in communion. We share bread and wine. We are fed, and then, as the Eastern Orthodox tradition reminds us, we take this nourishment into the world and into the daily existence that forms the fabric of our lives, allowing it to turn that which is ordinary into the vehicle of the extra-ordinary – God’s never-failing love for us and for all creation, enfleshed in the presence, power and purpose of Jesus, and realised through the disturbance and creativity of the Spirit in our midst.

How do we know this is happening? Because, as Psalm 15 reminds us, we begin to practice and see the fruits of holy living (v1): seeking truth and goodness (v2), doing right by our neighbours (v3), honouring those who genuinely honour God (v4), refusing to exploit others by word or action (passim), and ordering our economic lives according to need not greed (v5). “Do not money for interest”, we read – from the perspective of a world paying the price for doing exactly the opposite.

“Those who do these things shall never be moved,” declares the Psalmist, prefiguring Jesus’ words in the summary prayer he teaches his followers, and echoing his advice to Martha and Mary about “choosing the better part, which shall not be taken away from you” (Luke 10.41b).

Yes, life is full of distractions and stresses. They will not go away. The spiritual life is not about cutting ourselves off from the world. Rather, it is about but being turned around and sent in a new direction within it – most especially through attention to everything that is signed, sealed and delivered for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, whose presence is sheer gift beyond our control, beyond our agendas and beyond our busyness. “For Christ himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1.17).