When I say “distractions”, what comes to mind? I think one of the top distractions of today must be our smartphone. If we are not careful, it uses up all our spare time, time which we could have used to reflect on things, like the direction of our lives, on how to forgive someone, or simply to rest. I am not saying that some of the posts we receive are not inspirational, or that we cannot use the social media positively, but for many, including myself, they are sometimes like a new master, with its own requirements. If we don’t know the latest developments, we may feel inadequate or old-fashioned. This is also how it can become an addiction, interfering with more serious tasks.
Here is another example of a distraction: This is the interior of Asam Church, in Munich, Bavaria. You can perhaps see why some people do not find this very relaxing. It is a bombardment of shapes, colours and ornaments, overloading the senses. But this is very subjective. Some see in this very bombardment of the senses the overwhelming glory of God. Protestants often opt for simplicity and Catholics are often known for their love of art and other visual or audible reminders of the divine.
So the question should not be whether something is a distraction, but whether it works as a distraction for you. A third example is when you are feeling down and your mind goes in circles.
It may then be beneficial to go for a walk, cycle or watch a soap. Curiously, solutions sometimes come to us when we try less hard to solve a problem. Still, it is not the distraction itself which brings the solution, but our more relaxed attitude, an open mind and giving our creative process some time.
Now I have a question for you: Can work be a distraction? What do you think?
And if it is functioning as a distraction, from what is work distracting us?
I think it all depends on your priorities. Sometimes work has to be a priority, not only to survive, but also to make our contributions to society. But when people become workaholics, that’s when you wonder if they are running away from something. Some people are not able to receive things which are free, or they are never satisfied, or they simply have no other priorities in life.
When Jesus visits Martha and Mary, their responses are very different. For Martha, the highest priority was work, so in that sense her work was not a distraction. If anything, the Lord’s visit was a distraction. Which was not to say that is was unwelcome. For it enabled Martha to show someone important how hard she was working. She was showing off. No doubt this was amplified by the opportunity to point out that her sister was seemingly doing nothing at all. And no doubt the work was useful. Most of it was probably meant as hospitality.
If you are familiar with the enneagram, Martha was your typical helper.
But the Lord speaks of distractions, because Martha could have had better priorities.
Mind you, He is not actually condemning her for some sin. If anything He feels sorry for her. “Martha, Martha…”. You have so many self-imposed burdens. It leaves you no time to listen.
And He does not condemn her for manipulation either, that is, for trying to twist Mary’s arm via a request to the Lord. Or for wanting His intervention in return for her hard work.
He knows that Martha has punished herself enough by not hearing all His words.
And finally, he doesn’t say that all her work is in vain, just that she is distracted by too many things. But He does make it clear there is a better way, a way without any demands or mutual expectations, but with empathy. If Martha had reflected just a little more on the situation, she might have realised that the best way to help a teacher, is to listen to what he has to say. And you might learn a thing or two in the process. A travelling rabbi, the son of a carpenter, who is using every opportunity to share a revolutionary gospel of liberation and love, probably won’t mind if He doesn’t get a 5 course meal or if one of the rooms is still a little dusty.
In the Church, are we not sometimes like Martha? We are welcoming the Lord into our buildings.
But once He is inside, we are very much doing our own thing. And we become very critical of those who are doing it differently, those whose ambition is other than just to keep things running.
To those of us who recognise themselves in the description of Martha, I would ask, ‘why did we invite the Lord in in the first place’?
Was it so that we got all the attention, or so that Christ and His message would get more attention?
Which brings me to another layer of meaning in this short story. For we can also see it as a reference to the matter of salvation by works or salvation by grace. When Martha asks Jesus, “don’t you care”? she is not so much asking for, but claiming Jesus’ intervention. “I have been doing all this work, so the least you could have done, was to tell Mary to help me”. It is a kind of transaction. “If I do this, you must do that.” God’s grace and salvation are totally different. We receive many things from the Lord, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes based on His promises, but never because we are entitled to something. The idea of entitlement leads to many problems. It often violates the rights of other people or nations. We can see it in the Middle East, among shareholders, in businesses, and even in the Church. “I have done so much for the Church, or suffered so much, or I have been appointed to such and such a position, so from now you have to give me what I want”. Wrong. We depend on Christ, not only for our righteousness, but all the way.
But how, without Jesus being physically present, do we listen to His voice, and why is that listening so important? I used to know a woman, now long deceased, who claimed to be able to hear the voice of Jesus in her dreams. Jesus told her to reject her son-in-law and even her daughter if they would not obey her. She also predicted that her grandson would die, unless. When asked how she knew this was the voice of Jesus, she would say she had so many experiences with Jesus, that there could not be any doubt. Now even if all the other experiences were valid, it doesn’t mean that every new hunch we have must come from God. This is again a matter of entitlement. We should be very careful if we think that Christ requires us to condemn someone. The only people Christ condemned were the hypocrites and the proud, those who knew it all, because they claimed to have a direct line to God, to the exclusion of others. I also wonder what Christ would say about those who insist that you can only properly understand Him if you have a degree in theology. Seriously, this is an actual debate in the Dutch Protestant Church! But if this is false, how can we listen to and understand Him?
Addy and I are currently watching the Netflix series “The Crown”, which is based on the actual life of Queen Elisabeth. In one of the episodes Billy Graham is invited to preach in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor. I have not been able to verify this, but the text he spoke about on that occasion, was Colossians 1, the same epistle we read today. Presumably, the Queen was especially touched by verses 27 and 28, “how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone in all wisdom, so that we present everyone mature in Christ”. It led the Queen to examine herself and to ask Grahams advice about the meaning of forgiveness in relation to her uncle’s contacts with the Nazi’s.
The point I want to make here is neither about the meaning of forgiveness, nor about the people involved in this mini-drama. It is about the crucial insight that Christ lives in us, but we still need to listen to others who have Christ living in them. Billy Graham was an unlikely speaker at the British court, telling the head of the Church of England about practical Christianity and a holy life. He was scorned by many. But the Queen was right to be willing to become, as she called it, “an ordinary Christian”, to go back to the basics, to want to hear the voice of Christ. She understood that for everyone there is a field of tension between on the one hand having Christ inside, and belonging to this great priesthood of all believers, thanks to our baptism and being born again, and on the other hand our need to be taught “in all wisdom”, to become “mature in Christ”.
No matter what our position in society or in the church may be, no matter what we have or haven’t achieved, these two things are always equally important and should be in balance: our full membership and status within the body of Christ, as nothing less than fellow-priests, as well as our role as students, which is often called discipleship. Let no one tell you that you are only students, but likewise, let no one consider himself or herself as priests or leaders who have arrived. Perhaps this is the mystery of hearing Christ’s voice: We should listen to His voice within us, as well as to the Universal Christ, in whom all things in heaven and earth were created, so that they all bear his mark.
And like Mary, sitting at Jesus’s feet, eagerness to learn will be rewarded.