For me, this is a difficult blog to write. I’m the prime culprit of what I’m about to caution us all about: distraction. Even when I’m doing church work, maybe especially when I’m doing church work, I tend to get distracted from the main mission and chase loose ends. My Bible studies are famous for being long, rambling affairs that can’t be scheduled for less than two or three hours—it takes me time to get to the point after chasing down linguistic and cultural-contextual notes. At church, I chase my kids, try to fix things and just snoop around the building while my wife focuses on talking with people about God and their lives. I’m easily distracted from what God would have me do. And there are consequences for that.
The prophet Amos decries the situation of the prosperous Northern Kingdom of Israel. The pursuit and acquisition of wealth had distracted people from more important things—observing God’s law and loving their neighbor. Instead of living into God’s sacred time, they wondered, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?” (Amos 8:5). Instead of resting and focusing on God, all they could think about was financial gain. I totally understand this! I work for an ELCA synod, so even while we sit in church on Sunday, my mind frequently strays from worship of God to what I can be doing to support this congregation. And then all of a sudden, I’m thinking about work emails that I have to return and wondering when the service will be over.
Amos confronts the people about their distraction, going so far as to allege that they sold the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals (Amos 8:6). Instead of seeing neighbors as humans of infinite worth and bearers of God’s image, price tags were attached to the usefulness of every person. How often do we allow this to happen in our discourse, in discussing poor people as freeloaders, non-contributors and as a drain on society? How often do I testify against myself with my actions when I would rather catch up on Facebook than listen to someone who may need a sympathetic ear? I’m just as guilty and distracted as the people whom Amos testified against. God’s verdict on this distraction is poetic:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
and from north to east;
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it (Amos 8:11-12).
God says, “Look, if you don’t pay attention to my word, I will take it away and you won’t have my words to ignore anymore.” God isn’t being vengeful or cruel, but like a good parent, simply letting children experience the natural consequences of their choices to ignore the wisdom of parents.
A few hundred years later, Jesus found that distraction was still a problem, as we read in this week’s Gospel lesson.
Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived in Bethany. Theories abound (as they always do) about the nature of this town, but the Qumran community (11QTemple 46:16-47:5) spoke of three hospices or leper colonies in the area. Jerome, commenting on Eusebius, wrote that the name “Bethany” meant domus adflictionis (house of affliction). Syriac versions of the New Testament describe Bethany as בית עניא (house of poverty or misery). Mark 14:3 and Matthew 26:6 point out that lepers owned property there. Bethany was the last stop on the pilgrimage route up to Jerusalem from the Jordan Rift Valley, and was where those who were too poor, too ritually impure to enter Jerusalem or were unable to return home from their pilgrimage stopped. If Bethany contained a massive hospice and poorhouse, Jesus’ saying that “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8) is a simple statement of fact.
In this context, we should understand Martha and Mary, two women living together with their younger brother, without husbands or parents, were resident-workers in the poorhouse/hospice. Accordingly, when Martha was distracted by her many tasks (Luke 10:40), we need to understand her not as simply wanting help cleaning the dishes, but doing the holy work of taking care of the poor, the sick and the dying who congregated in Bethany. Jesus’ insistence that being with him rather than carrying out godly ministries is the best choice (Luke 10:42) cuts me to my heart. Even doing the work of the church, even loving my neighbor, is not nearly as holy as simply being present and listening to Jesus.
Now, Martha and Mary didn’t become traveling disciples. They stayed and presumably continued to take care of the poor, sick and dying in Bethany. They didn’t literally follow Jesus, even though their lives were entirely Christlike. But when Jesus stopped by to enjoy time with those who spent their lives taking care of the “least of these,” the best course of action was to resist feeling distracted by even the holiest work and focus on his presence.
Not being distracted, and especially not being distracted by good, holy work, is difficult for me. And yet, Jesus calls us to love God, love our neighbor and, above all, cherish his presence with us even more than we enjoy pleasant distractions. May we all, in the words of the hymn, “turn our eyes upon Jesus.”