February 21, 2021
First Sunday of Lent
I love lists. I make shopping lists and menu lists and to-do lists. I make lists of ideas for sermons and for my humor column and for other writing projects. Ryan and I just made a list of ten games we want to play ten times each this year—a 10 X 10 list—it’s a thing.
I have to-do list and shopping list apps on my phone, and sometimes I make pretty lists in my journal, but usually my lists are scrawled into notebooks or onto sticky notes or other random pieces of paper. These can make for entertaining reading months down the road when I have no idea why I might have written “FB cats puppies” on a sticky note with “Jesse Jackson.”
I peg this lawyer in Luke 10 as a list-maker like me. He asks Jesus about the ultimate to-do list item: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. Jesus, in his typical fashion, turns the question back to the lawyer. Which is fine because the lawyer has his list ready:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus says, “You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.”
Here’s the thing, though. The lawyer’s “What must I do?” and Jesus’ “Do this”—they are using two different Greek verb tenses. For any grammar aficionados out there, the lawyer’s “do” is aorist tense—it’s a finished action. The lawyer wants to know one thing he can do once to get him eternal life. But Jesus’ “do” is present tense which, in Greek as in English, can indicate something that is ongoing, that you do regularly. I brush my teeth. I walk my dogs. I procrastinate writing my sermons.
Jesus is saying that if the man regularly enacts his love for God and neighbor, he will live. “Love the Lord your God.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” These are not items you can check off of a list and move on to the next thing.
I imagine the priest and the Levite were also list-makers. You almost have to be if you are in charge of worship services, if you are trying to lead a religious community.
They would need lists of imperfections to look for with the animals that were brought in for sacrifice. Lists of things to bring in and do and clean in the Temple. Lists of songs—Psalms—to sing in worship. And since they were heading away from Jerusalem, they might have been creating mental lists of all the things they hadn’t done quite right at the Temple or all of the things they would need to do when they got home.
And you know Martha had a list going of all the things she needed to do to host Jesus. When I’m planning for guests—back when we could have guests—I generally start the day with a list that only gets longer with every spotty mirror and dirty rug I see in my house. And it’s hard to let the unchecked items go when the guests arrive. I also know Martha’s frustration when the people I live with don’t seem to be operating with the same list I have. When their “to do” list for the day includes “play a card game” or “practice guitar” when we only have 2 HOURS UNTIL PEOPLE GET HERE.
Jesus says that Martha is “worried and distracted by many things.” That sounds familiar.
I’m convinced that throughout this entire passage, it is this distraction that makes the difference between whether or not characters respond faithfully to a given situation.
It’s not like the priests and the Levite are villains—bad people determined to neglect the needy and vulnerable. They just . . . had other things to do. Really, it does seem like the Samaritan put in a lot of time—and money—to help the man who had been robbed.
You might have noticed that the priest was “going down the road” and the Levite “came to that place” while the Samaritan was “travelling.” Jesus doesn’t give us any details about what, specifically, each one was doing or where they were headed. But to me the term “travelling” suggest that maybe the Samaritan was on a longer, less focused journey. Maybe his head was blessedly free of the checklists that plagued the priest and the Levite. Maybe he was less distracted.
And Martha is certainly not presented in a negative light. She is a faithful supporter of Jesus, and there seems to be a tenderness in Jesus’ response to her request that he tell Mary to get up and help. Jesus’ words seem much more about affirming Martha than condemning Mary.
This is the only place these sisters are mentioned in Luke, but they show up again in the Gospel of John, along with their brother, Lazarus. John tells us that Mary is the one who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. So that tracks. She’s less practical than her sister. And less responsible. And less appropriate.
The priest and the Levite and Martha—these stories don’t present them as bad people, just as people who are missing out on some of the things God would like to show them—on the opportunity to be a neighbor, on the chance to really listen to Jesus. They all three perform important religious functions—maintaining worship at the Temple; feeding and housing Jesus and the disciples. Jesus doesn’t condemn the good things they do; he doesn’t say they shouldn’t have their lists. He does, however, show how people less focused on lists, less bound by them, may have more freedom to respond to God.
It’s not that the lists are bad. In fact, they can be very helpful. It’s good that the lawyer knew the list of commandments. It’s good that the priest knew the list of unacceptable blemishes and the Levite knew the list of hymns. It’s really good that Martha knew the list of ingredients needed for Jesus’ favorite stew.
My shopping lists keep me from needing to make a trip to the store every day. My to-do lists really do help me get things done. Even my sermon idea lists that are so baffling when I find them months later are helpful when I’m actually preparing the sermon.
So as I’ve been thinking about these stories, I’ve been wondering what, really, made the difference—Why did the Samaritan stop when the priest and Levite walked by? Why did Mary sit and listen while Martha worked and complained? Surely the Samaritan and Mary had their lists, too. So how were they able to pay faithful attention to what was in front of them while the others were so distracted?
There was once a study conducted with seminary students—it’s rather infamous and you may have heard of it before. The basic idea was that different students were sent from one building on campus to another and along the way they encountered someone who needed help. The test, of course, was whether or not the student would stop to help. One of the variables was the content of the sermon the student was preparing to preach. That didn’t seem to make a difference. People preaching on the “Good Samaritan” would walk right by someone in need.
The variable that did make a difference was how much time people felt like they had. If they were short on time, they wouldn’t stop. If they had plenty of time, they usually would.
This past Wednesday night, three youth showed up for our Zoom youth check in. I hadn’t really talked with them much since we stopped meeting together in person, so I was delighted to have a chance to hear about how their lives were going. I guess I’ve been talking to too many stressed out adults, because I was surprised by what they told me. They all said: “I have more time.” Time for art and music and watching movies online with friends. They seemed . . . happy. They seemed like people who would take the time to stop and help someone they passed on the road or sit and listen to a friend or teacher.
I realize, of course, that “having time” is easier said than done. Schedules fill up; responsibilities accumulate. We make so many plans to do good things that we end up missing the good things God puts right in front of us.
If you are feeling “distracted by many things,” if you are feeling overwhelmed by the lists in your life, I encourage you to prayerfully consider how you can open up some time; how you can travel at a little more leisurely pace; how you can pay a little more attention to what is right in front of you instead of what is up ahead.
Maybe you say “no” to something—or things. Maybe you try to practice Sabbath—set your lists aside for one day a week. Maybe you pray each morning that you will have eyes to see. Maybe you do a daily examen each night, thinking or talking about your day and where you saw God in the midst of all you were doing.
Different people will find different ways to open up time and pay attention to God in their lives. What works for me might not work for you. And no matter what, we have to avoid turning “pay attention to God” into just another item on our list. Like the lawyer, we may want to know what one thing we can do one time to be good and faithful people. And we hear the words from Jesus: “Keep on doing this–loving God and loving your neighbor—and you will live.”