Where is Your Attention?

Where is Your Attention?

November 10, 2014
Stina Pope


The underlying theme for today is “pay attention!” We have two good stories, one about Joshua challenging the people of Israel to choose life, and the other is Jesus, the second Joshua, telling people that if they want to choose life, they need to prepare for it.

So looking at the first story, Joshua has led the people into the promised land. After being in the wilderness for two generations, they have finally gotten to their new home, the land that God has promised them. And then, their leader gives them a challenge. Will they commit to following this Yahweh, or to following the other gods – which, if you look at the text, they obviously have. He tells them that if they are going to follow Yahweh, they have to put away their other gods. Why? Because this god Yahweh is a jealous god and demands total obedience. This was a very different concept – and it still is. The “normal” concept is that there are different gods that control different aspects of our lives. Yes, there may well be a “creator” god that is at the center point, the supreme god, if you will, but then there are the other smaller gods that we also give credence to.

Joshua says no, if you are going to follow this Yahweh, there are no smaller gods. But, this Yahweh is a very powerful god – so if you follow him, you will have enough. There is a liturgical dance in the reading, we see that Joshua makes the challenge, the people say yes we will do this, Joshua says no you cannot do this, the people insist that they will do this. Then Joshua sits down and makes statutes and ordinances for them to follow. In other words, if you, as a community, are going to follow this Yahweh, then these are the rules for the community. Some of these rules clearly set this community apart from the communities around them. They circumcise their men. They do not eat certain foods. They follow certain practices, like keeping sabbath, and hold certain feasts that are different than their neighbors.

When we look at this from a sociological or anthropological approach, we might say, aha! This is a great way of gathering a disparate group of people and forming them into a coherent functional group, and there is no real reason for doing this kind of activity if they are already a coherent group. Therefore, we may safely guess that until this point, they may well not have been one group. In fact, this is the theory, that until this point – and “this point” is rather broadly defined – there in fact was not “a” group of people who came from from Egypt, but rather one band of people who came from there, who joined up with a couple of other landless groups, and eventually formed a large enough community to need a history and a vision for the future.

You can take that as justification for throwing out the whole endeavor, or you can again remind yourself that this is not “history” as we know it, but rather a later explanation of “why we do the things we do” and why we keep doing them.

One of the things about this passage that makes me ponder is the very clear monotheistic demand, and our trinitarian theology. If this is your bedrock, no wonder Jewish folks have issues with our claim that there are three “aspects” of God. Jews, and Muslims too, for that matter, have no problems with the many “names” of God, but it is exceptionally clear that that all of those names refer back to the one God. Mohammed is always called “the Prophet,” and is never, ever, referred to as God. It is only the Christians who have said that their prophet is the son of God, which is to say, also God.

So how do we read this passage? Rather than get caught in the very tangled web of trinitarian theology, I think it is quite enough to say that we have many gods competing for our attention, the gods of money and prestige are obvious enough. Many authors have taken the words, I’d give my soul if X would happen, and have made great artistic works with that as the starting point. But how often have we wondered how much it would take to influence things to get what we wanted done. And of course, we have the elections to see what money can indeed do to influence one direction or the other.

Then there is the god of time. So many things want our attention. We are overwhelmed so much of the time. Here the words of Jesus come back very clearly – pay attention to the kingdom of God, and everything else will fall into proper place.

What would happen in your life if you first paid attention to whether or not what you were doing was in alignment with God and with the kingdom of God. This business of being in alignment is a helpful concept for me. I know that when I am “in alignment” that things are smooth, not always easy, but there is a sense of correctness about life. It is not about being in alignment with society – that is one way that people try to make things work, to make sure that they are doing what is expected from friends and family and the larger community. However, this is looking at a different standard. Christianity (at least the Christianity that I consider to be “real” Christianity) does not fit in very well with American society – we really are counter-cultural. So when we ask the question, what does God require in this situation, and there are two answers to that – the general answer is given in Hosea: act justly, walk humbly, love mercy – and then we are to take that general answer and make it fit in the particular circumstance that we are dealing with.

So paying attention to alignment, walking humbly, acting justly and loving mercy, this is what God requires, which may get us into trouble! Like the 90 year old man in Florida who was arrested for feeding the homeless. Part of me is just appalled, and the other part of me read the story carefully and said, it’s not so simple. The city has not said it is impossible, they have made some conditions – and those conditions are not outrageous. There is a time to sit down with the city leaders and say, OK, so what are we going to do with all of these people. In this situation, it sounds like that is pretty much what did happen, and this guy wanted to do his feeding program the way he had always done it, and they said no. And then there are other times and other situations where the city in question has said, we don’t want to deal with poor people and with homeless people in particular, at all! We just want them to go away! That’s a different situation, and that is the time when it is important for people to go out and get arrested and make a big splash, for sure.

So on to the parable which is usually called the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. I have never liked this parable. I never understood why the ones with the oil didn’t share. That just seemed wrong to me. So I had to do a bit of digging on this. It seems that Jesus told two kinds of parables. There are parables which have a surprise ending, like when the workers who only worked one hour got a full day’s wage – this is a parable of grace. There are other parables which do not have a surprise ending, they just are set out there as a parable of justice. What I read suggested this is one of the stories where everyone would have just nodded their heads and said, well yes, that’s what happens!

The context here is a village wedding. When the bride was ready, the groom and his companions would go to the bride’s house to get her, and then parade back through the entire village, taking as circuitous a route as possible so everyone would see the festivities – and this happened at night. Weddings happen in the hot season, and so this parade goes on for a long time during the night, and you would not know how long it would take for the bridegroom to arrive home again.

One commentator said it was remarkable that Jesus used women as the focal point of the parable, another place where he lifts up the status of women, and remember that it takes 10 men to make a minyan, a quorum for prayer. That’s where the number 10 comes from. The business with the lamps is that women simply did not go out at night without a lamp. It was not about being able to see, it was about declaring that there was no funny business going on.

But the focus of this story is not about anticipating the coming of the bridegroom, but rather the delay, it is the delay that makes the crisis. So what is going on here? We have to remember that this was written by Matthew, at least two generations after the death of Jesus. Everyone anticipated the return of Jesus – but there was this delay! So the issue became not – was there going to be a delay, remember it was OK that the virgins went to sleep, life goes on – but rather to not forget, to be prepared, even in the waiting. It is not enough to say, I’ll spend time on my spiritual life when – when I’m retired, when the kid is older, when… No, we need to think about these things now.

I was reminded again that we never know, really, if we will come home, and so it is important to pay attention to the relationship now, to leave in contentment instead of anger, so that if the worst happens, at least you will not regret forgetting to say goodbye, forgetting to touch, being prepared. Yes, it is OK to go to sleep, but for heaven’s sake, remember to carry some extra spiritual oil with you! And where do you get that oil? Spending time, reading, reflecting, listening to God, that’s how!