Writer Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed several years ago now, titled “The Taxi Driver.” In it, he tells the story of a taxi ride he took from the airport in Paris to his hotel. Over the hour that he rode, he said, he and his taxi driver did six things. Friedman wrote an article on his laptop, listened to Stevie Nicks on his iPod, and rode in the car. The taxi driver, meanwhile, drove the car, talked on the phone, and watched a video while he was driving (a fact that made Friedman more than a little nervous). What they did not do, said Friedman, was talk. Barely a word to each other. For over an hour.
Friedman wrote this story a way to share his concern about the place of technology in our lives. “Technology can make the far feel near, but it can also make the near feel far.” He quotes technologist Linda Stone who labels this disease of our time, “continuous partial attention.” Because of our technology, she states, “we are everywhere, except where we actually physically are.” The people in the room are often the least important people in our lives. We assume we know who they are, or what they think, or how they will respond. So why bother?
Even in church, we risk this danger. Continuous partial attention is not just because of technology. How often do we sit in the same space as someone, notice them when they visit for the first time, participate in worship with them, pass the peace to them, even engage in conversation with them, without ever actually giving them our full attention? We think we know them, who they are, what they think, how they will respond. So why bother? We walk in and out of the church doors, and never get deeper than “continuous partial attention.”
The tenth chapter of Luke is a study in attention. At the end of the chapter are these two stories that are actually pretty famous. The story of the Good Samaritan and the story of Mary and Martha. Back to back. How many people knew that these two passages were back to back? How often we treat them as separate spheres, and we spend a lot of time in each of them separately, but they are part of the same story of attention and hospitality. In the two
Let me first give quick reviews of both passages. First, the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable in response to a scholar who is looking for the boundaries of neighbor love. “Who is my neighbor?” he asks. Jesus answers him with a story. In the story, there is a man who is beaten and left for dead. And two religious officials come by – a priest and a Levite – and they walk to the other side of the road, passing him by. We don’t know why for sure, but Jesus does not excuse their behavior. It is clear by the story that they missed the boat. They have failed to attend to this man or meet his needs. It doesn’t make sense! The two men whose job it was to attend to the duty of God, saw a need in their midst and walked away.
Then, Luke goes immediately to the story of Martha and Mary. Jesus travels to the house of these two sisters. Martha busies herself with taking care of his needs, while Mary sits at his feet and listens to him. This frustrates Martha, and she gets angrier and angrier until she finally reaches her boiling point, and storms into the room to complain that Mary isn’t doing her job! In the Greek, the word order that Luke uses is to place three words at the beginning of Martha’s sentence: “me,” “alone,” and “my”. Each one an example of her needs and her concerns. Not only that, but each one starts with the “m” sound, making it a percussive preoccupation with self. According to Luke, Martha comes crashing into the room, literally saying “ME! ME! ME!”
And how many of us relate? Someone has to cook Wednesday night meals and clean the toilets and hand out food in the pantry! Someone has to do the work of the church! And that someone doesn’t have time to stop for every sad case on the side of the road. There are things that have to be done, and someone has to do it.
But the problem with each of these is that they are doing things for others without actually doing them for others. They are not paying attention to those they serve, and perhaps even resenting them! They fail to be good neighbors, and instead live a preoccupied life. In composite, the Levite and the Priest and Martha show us what happens when we fail to truly pay attention to those in our midst.
But Jesus gives us a different way. Jesus corrects Martha, but notice how he does it. He does not chide her because she is busy. We have historically judged Martha because she is busy, but Jesus does not. He judges her because she resents that not everyone is as busy as she is. Martha was preoccupied with self. Mary was preoccupied with Jesus. Anyone ever guilty of being so occupied with getting the house ready for house guest that even after the houseguest arrives, you are scurrying around with last minute vacuuming or dusting or whatever – all the while actually ignoring the guest who is sitting in your living room?! Martha paid attention to her agenda; Mary paid attention to Jesus. And Jesus reminded them both that Mary had chosen the thing that would not be taken from her.
In the first story, it is the third man who comes along that makes the difference. The Samaritan: the guy who was the wrong race, the wrong religion, the wrong lifestyle…just a bad guy. But he is the one who saves the man who was beaten! Who shows love and service and hospitality! The bad buy…is the good guy. Jesus is making a political point here. As soon as he said the word, “Samaritan,” everyone in his audience would have thought to themselves, “that dirty immigrant needs to get back on his side of the wall.” And Jesus was counting on it! He was counting on their racism and xenophobia…because he uses it to expose their unwillingness to attend to those in their midst. He exposes their prejudice – showing them that when they judge someone by their skin color or their nationality or their religion, they miss the opportunity to truly see one of God’s children.
Jesus counts on their prejudice, and makes the dirty immigrant who is the hero of the story! Again, a closer look at the text reveals the difference. The Levite and the priest saw him. The Samaritan saw him and “came up to him.” The word in the Greek is the same that is used when someone comes into the presence of a deity. The Samaritan approached this man as if he was approaching the throne of God.
Which is the true good news of Luke 10. Jesus taught again and again that the one who is focused on themselves and their own needs will never be satisfied or happy or fulfilled. They will always anxiously cross to the other side of the street, motivated by pessimistic fear. They will always rattle the pots and slam the dishes on the table, hoping that someone will notice their hard work.
But not the true disciple. Not the one who gives their full attention, not to self, but to the other, the neighbor, even to their enemy, will receive the life that Jesus says is worth living! In both of these passages, the one who becomes preoccupied with those in their midst find the fullness of God’s blessing. For Jesus, the person in front of him was always the most important person in the world. And it made all the difference in his ministry, and he promises it will make all the difference in our lives. “It will not,’ Jesus promises, “be taken away!”
And so, we move back from the world of the Scripture to our own world. I begin this week a series titled “Building Hospitality: Inviting All to God’s House.” Some of you will recognize the title from the Capital Campaign that we are concluding this year. Our goal with the campaign was to give us the tools to be an inviting and welcoming congregation. New welcome space. Worship space designed to engage. A clean and updated building that we can invite the community into. That was our goal, and we accomplished it! The tools are here!
And yet. Now that the tools are complete, we run perhaps the biggest risk. For the danger now is that we are like the person who opens a brand new, shiny hammer, who is afraid to mess it up by using it; they are content staring at it for hours, without bothering to start driving nails! Ludicrous, isn’t it? But not too far from the truth sometimes. This is Friedman’s point: the technology that is meant to bring us closer together can very easily drive us farther apart. So, now that we have built the tools for hospitality, it is time to use them!
But in order to do so, we must avoid the trap that the priest and the Levite and Martha fell into – the trap of self-preoccupation. There are people walking into our building, emotionally as broken and bleeding and beaten up as the man on the side of the road. And yet, there are times that we anxiously walk to the other side of the road because we don’t know what to say. And there are people who are in this building, this community, your place of school or work, and they have a word of wisdom or blessing or hope. But we are too busy to notice, too angry that no one has told us today how glad they are that we are busy. We must avoid the trap of self-preoccupation!
May God give us Good Samaritan eyes! May God give us Mary ears! May God help us to be attentive to those in our midst who are hurting! May God help us to see those who might be speaking on behalf of the very Holy Spirit of God! May God help us to see the people that he puts in our midst. Not just as potential tithers or not. Not just as their age or their race or their outward appearances. Not just as people who we assume we know who they are or what they think or how they respond. But as instruments of God’s grace and peace! May we attend to them, approaching them as if we were approaching the very throne of God!
In the op-ed by Tom Friedman, he laments the fact that he did not talk to his taxi driver. He was a French-speaking African, and probably had an incredible story to tell about his experiences and life as an outsider in a different land. Friedman lamented because as an author and foreign correspondent, he is always on the lookout for a good story. As Christ-followers, we must always be on the lookout for God’s story. Let us open our eyes to God’s story of grace and love, standing right in front of us!