Luke 10:38-42 – Mary & Martha – worry & distraction

a reflection by Dan Spragg

Apparently the attention span of Goldfish is 9 seconds. So here’s a question: who has the longer attention span, a goldfish or a person? Well, it used to be a person, at 12 seconds. Now, the goldfish is beating us. The average person now loses concentration after 8 seconds. We live in the age of the internet and as a result if something doesn’t grab our attention immediately apparently we’ll switch off after just 8 seconds. Linda Stone who is a former Apple and Microsoft executive coined the phrase, ‘Continuous Partial Attention,’ to describe how we tend to operate in our daily lives. With the ever encroaching and all encompassing presence of the internet and especially mobile devices we are able to remain connected so as to not miss one single piece of information. “Stone described one consequence of becoming habituated to drinking from this fire hose of information as “an artificial sense of constant crisis.” And since most of these crises are someplace else, “We [are] everywhere except where we actually [are] physically.” Imagine living everywhere except where you actually are. Well, that’s how we do things these days. I know I’ve been guilty of letting my phone distract me when I’ve actually meant to have been talking to someone in the flesh. We do so, most of the time, out of habitual compulsion – we can’t help ourselves – we are constantly distracted.

‘Worried and distracted.’ That’s what stood out to me from this passage. ‘You are worried and distracted,’ Jesus said to most people living in the presence of a smartphone, whoops, sorry, he said that to Martha. This experience of being worried and distracted is a very human experience. I think it is amplified and intensified by our lifestyle and society today but it’s not a new problem. Humans have been worried and distracted ever since we have been humans. The capacity to think independently also gave rise to our capacity to worry and be distracted.

What is it to be worried and distracted? To worry is to be concerned about an actual or potential problem. And, to be distracted is to have our attention pulled away from what we are meant to be focusing on. What these things do to us is to cause us to be unable to be present to the very moment we find ourselves in. As said just before, ‘we are everywhere except where we actually are…’ The effects of this on us is that more often than not we become irritable, inward looking, unable to see the big picture and we start looking for other people to blame our uncomfortable feelings on. Sounds a bit like what was going on for Martha. Martha was worried and distracted. Martha was unable to be present in the moment right where she was.

The wider context for this passage started a chapter or so earlier. The disciples, 70 odd of them, are travelling with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. They’ve thrown all the gear into the bus and headed off on tour with Jesus – watching, listening, learning, getting to try stuff out – they’re learning what it is to live ‘the way’ with Jesus first hand. We see in a number of the stories that hospitality is central to what it means to live in God’s way. Abraham and Sarah hosted those three visitors to their tent all those years earlier and now as the disciples head out with Jesus there is the expectation that they will both be givers – as Martha is – and receivers of hospitality. On their first mission, they are sent in twos to visit homes and there is the expectation that in some of those places they will be welcomed and hosted and it is in the exchange of hospitality that the gospel will be made known. Of course, we know the story following Jesus’ death where it is over a meal table that the risen Christ was revealed. Hospitality is central to understanding this life with Jesus.

This story of Mary and Martha comes directly following the Good Samaritan story and it comes before Jesus teaching his disciples about prayer. In the Good Samaritan story we see a lawyer who while he knew the scriptures really well, he wasn’t able to hear the word of God. And here with Martha, Martha is too worried and distracted to hear the word of God. To the Lawyer Jesus says, ‘go and do,’ and to Martha Jesus in a sense says, ‘stay and sit.’ In both these stories there is something getting in the way of hearing the word of God. When something is causing us to be unable to hear the word of God, are we to ‘go and do,’ or are we to ‘stay and sit?’ Jesus says, ‘yes.’ ‘Which one?’ we ask, ‘Yes,’ says Jesus. Maybe this hints that the following teaching about prayer is that prayer has something to do with both contemplation and action.

Anyway, back to today’s story. Martha comes to Jesus and says, ‘Hey, tell Mary to get off her bum and come and help me, there’s a ton of stuff to do, no time for sitting around.’ And Jesus replies, ‘you are worried and distracted, there is only one thing needed.’ Now, it’s widely understood that a lot of the time the biblical understanding of the word ‘one’ means more than just the number. It has a wider meaning which encompasses a sense of being ‘whole’ or ‘unified.’ We get the sense then that Jesus is saying to Martha that what is needed is for her to be ‘whole’ or of ‘one mind’ or ‘unified’ with what is happening in that moment rather than for her to be being pulled in different directions – distracted, or worried about potential problems. Don’t be pulled away from the present moment – what is happening and who is here – Mary is here, Jesus is here. Hospitality is far more than simply providing a meal. Hospitality is the giving and receiving of one another. Hospitality is about building a relationship with the people who you are present with, it is the giving of yourself and the receiving of the other. There is a sense in which Jesus is saying, be present, be present here in this moment, don’t let yourself be pulled away. There is that sense actually in both the Good Samaritan story and in this story. Be present to what is before you – be compassionate towards the needs you find and be present and dwell with the people you are with. Both of these are instructional about being present to Christ in our midst. Be present to Christ and it will mean action and it will mean contemplation.

What is it for us that causes us to be worried and distracted? What is it for you? What is it for us as a church family? What causes division of our attention? What causes a rupture in the community for you? What causes us to lose focus on the hospitality of God? What causes us to not be present to Christ in our midst? Is it the chaotic world we live in? Is it the ongoing pandemic? Is it anxiety about the state of things? Is it the slow decline and struggle of the church? Are these causes of worry and distraction for us?

Jesus says, ‘don’t be worried and distracted, you are called to be whole, you are called to be unified in mind and body, you are called to be present to the moment, present to Christ who is in your midst.’

Worry and distraction is this thing that we’ve been really good at for a long time. And there are things in our world now that have amplified and intensified and made habitual these things and put us in a state of constant partial attention. Never quite exactly where we are physically in each moment. Our attention is pulled away from those right in front of us whether they are in need of compassion or whether we are in need of what they have to offer. Jesus calls us to be present to Christ in our midst. We are to listen to and learn from Jesus so that as we go on the road, as are on tour with Jesus, we can participate in the giving and receiving, we can participate in the hospitality of God, and we can be present to the presence of Christ in our lives and in our communities. We can participate in compassion, kindness, goodness, life to the full, love, joy, peace, hope… all those good things for us and for everyone. But, we miss out on these if we let ourselves be worried and distracted, pulled away from what is in front of us. So, as we find ourselves present to what is in front of us are we to be the Good Samaritan who acts with compassion, or are we to be Mary, who sits and listens and learns. The answer is, ‘yes.’ Because we are to be fully there. Do not be worried and distracted, be at peace, and embody that peace in the giving and receiving of the way of God.