As is the case with most courses of study, the further I get away from seminary, the less book work I actually remember. There are a few things that will always stick around. Tony Lewis’ explanation of the aorist tense by way of the Refectory’s Fiesta Dog is something I will never forget. As is my favorite Greek phrase, hapax legomenon, a thing once said. We use this delightful phrase to describe words or phrases in the Bible that appear only once. A true hapax wouldn’t appear in any other extant ancient Greek text, but it can be narrowed down to a single text, as I will do here, since I don’t have the resources to say for sure, but I can say, with a high level of certainty that Sunday’s Gospel lesson contains at least one of the 686 local hapax legomena in the New Testament.
Luke 10:38-42 is as well known as it is brief. It describes what is essentially a house church gathering at the home of Martha, who was one of two sisters, Mary and Martha (later, we’ll find out they also have a brother, Lazarus, for whom Jesus cared deeply). Martha welcomed Jesus into her home and took great pains to be a most gracious host. The text tells us that while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, Martha was “distracted by her many tasks.” The Greek words translated as “distracted” is perispao which is a compound word and a hapax legomenon. Perisapo comes from peri which means “about, around, or because of” and spao which means to draw.
Literally, Martha was drawn about by her many tasks. She wasn’t just distracted or worried, two words Jesus uses to describe her in the next verse. She wanted to join her sister at Jesus’ feet, but her mind was being pulled in too many directions: getting the water for foot washing, refilling the wine, baking the bread, and welcoming guests as they entered. Even her sister’s ability to just sit and listen was tearing Martha apart.
I’ve read a lot of sermons about how we should be more like Mary. That we should take the time to sit and learn from Jesus. It seem that even Jesus would have us hear this word, but I don’t buy it. The two words Jesus uses to describe Martha aren’t actually her affliction. She’s not simply worried or troubled by the many tasks she has to do. She’s literally out of control, being dragged here and there by social pressure, internal pressure, and maybe, her Enneagram number. The reality is that like Martha, we live in a world that is constantly trying to draw our attention away from Christ. It isn’t for lack of trying that we are drawn away from sitting at the feet of Jesus, but that our minds are attuned to so many things that we are drawn about by our many tasks. May you be gifted with space to slow down, to let your mind relax, and to simply sit at the feet of Jesus, if only for a moment.