Faith: Attentiveness to God's Word
"Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; but Mary has chosen the better part, sitting at my feet and listening to my words.” “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.”
If I were to boil faith down to its essence, I wouldn’t provide you with a list of actions, or give you some moralistic set of claims or dogmas. These can certainly arise out of the practice of faith; but they are not its essence. No, I think the very being of faith is attentiveness to God; the kind of attentiveness that takes place in a committed relationship of love that extends over time with all the changes, the ebbs and flows, and the peaks and valleys that are inevitable when you get beyond initial zealous titillation.
Do you remember the first time you realized you really loved someone? Good God how simultaneously ecstatic and yet vulnerable did you feel? You could of course give your friends and family a list of attributes, maybe even some sound logic about why you were so taken with the person. Yet neither the attributes nor the logic could capture the utterly illogical embrace and willingness to let go of your defences so as to investigate the other; to become vulnerable enough that the other might filter into the deepest recesses of your life, beyond your defences, your conditioning, your habits, even your very self definition. Filter in and begin to transform not just who you are but how you engage with the rest of the world. It’s this love that grabs hold of your attention and simultaneously fills your heart, mind and soul with longing to know, to see, to be in the presence of this person, that longs for them when they are not there with you; that even blinds you to their foibles, the way they challenge, press and pull you in directions you’d never go by yourself. It’s simultaneously rapturous and terrifying.
Mary’s attentiveness to Jesus, her listening to his words, opens her to a life where she cannot help but follow him, to lavish his feet with expensive perfumes, whose thankfulness for his love spurs her to acts that are brave, potentially groundbreaking for a woman of her day. To sit at the feet of a teacher was a man’s role, not a woman’s. To use a costly perfume for anointing ought to have cost her severe punishment. Yet something about Jesus’s words and his works, drew her to him and transformed how she lived in the world: the things she believed, that this was God’s Messiah - a very dangerous belief in the day; that he should be followed; that her love for him was not only immensely valued, it was grounded already in his love for her; that her’s was a reciprocal love already implanted in her core being by the God who created her.
Of course as time goes on, attention, and the love that spurs it on, is challenged by so many things. You all know this from living with partners, children, friends, other family members. So many things cause a drift in our attention, sometimes just busyness, as with Martha; or maybe a deeper obsession with needing control and order and realizing that loving another challenges that. Sometimes though, it can be about competing goods: David’s Bathsheba, the woman’s 7 men, none of whom are her husband, the lure of money, power, possession of land or goods, or forcing a return to an idealized past that never actually existed; the ultimate exercise in autonomy and tyranny.
The thing about attention, particularly attention to Jesus’s words, is that in them, we find that God demands of us, created us, in fact, for nuanced discernment. The problem with inattentiveness is that it conditions us to seek simplistic or reductionistic ways of living and engaging other people. But God does not engage human beings through time in ways that are simple for us to understand, partly because, like the Israelites in Amos, we are enmeshed in lives and relationships that are broken, and partly because we are prone to succumb to our own fears and mechanisms of self protection. The Israelites provide us with an example - not unlike our own time and context - of massive distraction from God’s words.
We see this play out in the Gospels where Jesus consistently condemns even Israel’s own practices in prayer and worship. Jesus tells them they substitute the practice of worship and prayer with holiness itself; rather than worship and prayer flowing out of holiness: the difficult self-sacrificial actions of loving God and neighbour, so being patient, kind, generous, and controlled in dealing with people whose lives are not perfect for a complexity of reasons; of tolerating those with whom we might even have moral disagreement, or the complex task of determining what it is to be faithful when we cannot tolerate such actions. To sit at Jesus’s feet and listen attentively is to engage in the extraordinarily challenging task of being opened up to a life that is God’s foremost, and so that draws you out of yourself and into God’s provisions and plans for you as you engage others in this world. If you think this is easy, I think you haven’t been paying close attention to God’s words.
I think we are most prone to be Martha’s. It’s much easier. We feel more productive, partially because there is less time spent attending to a way of life that will always remain somewhat foreign to us as limited and sinful creatures. But we are called to be Mary. How might we do that? I think it begins by examining how we spend our time, our energy, and our resources. How much time do you actually spend reading Scripture? Is this the lens through which you see the world? If not, perhaps start with just reading more. We are certainly creatures of this world, yet we are not merely of this world. And it is solely, as Simone Weil remarked, as we attend to God’s word that we might find ourselves led not just to an end times ‘gateway to eternity … The infinite in an instant,’ but rather by seeing glimpses of this, witness to that reality of so that others might be drawn into the perfection of peace for which they were created by God. AMEN