“Scientists say giant asteroid could hit the earth next week, causing mass devastation.” [i] That headline screamed across the online news feed on July 9th, Saturday a week ago. The opening sentences of the story were these: “Scientists have discovered a massive asteroid that is on course to hit the Earth next week and are scrambling to find a way to divert the object. The asteroid has been named 2016-FI and measures approximately 1 km across. If it strikes a populated area, it could wipe out entire cities and potentially devastate an entire continent.”
As you might imagine, the story went viral. If we’re faced with interstellar cataclysm, I suppose one should want the news to spread exponentially. I wonder if Home Depot saw a spike in sales of bomb shelter supplies… And yet, here we are. The week of danger has passed with no asteroid, no Armageddon.
You see, the article turned out to be one-part news and another part social experiment. The news it shared had, it turns out, nothing to do with meteors. After those panicked opening sentences, the article revealed its actual content, a research study by Columbia University which found that sixty percent of links shared on social media are never actually read by those who share them. Consider that. An almost supermajority of the online information in which so many of us traffic is passed along to others without being vetted, and often without even being read beyond the headline at all. As confirmation of the trend, the very article announcing it, with an inflammatory title and three supporting opening sentences about a cataclysmic asteroid, itself went viral.
The study’s lead author says, “People are more willing to share an article than read it. This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”
We ingest headlines without considering content. We absorb provocative statements, but we do not test their veracity. We allow our opinions and, indeed, our beliefs to be influenced by superlatives, but we rarely analyze nuance.
The study and the article focused on online media, but the same phenomenon surely extends from the virtual into the everyday. We now, more than ever, live in a surface-skimming world, which is characterized by fast movement, speedy conclusions, and self-satisfying echo chambers in which we too often seek only that data—from media, from our leaders, from our circles of friends, indeed, from our church—which reinforces the things, theories and conclusions we already want to be true.
This brings us to today’s Gospel passage, about Martha and Mary.[ii] Most often this anecdote from Luke is interpreted as a case of competing virtues. Martha works for Jesus, while Mary communes with Jesus. Both are important, just as volunteering at the Beacon, for instance, and attending worship are both important. “How can we best attend to both?” a litany of books about Mary and Martha on Amazon.com asks. That’s a fair question and one worth asking, but it is also a question that considers this passage out of context, and as such, it’s not the question the passage itself implies to the reader. This passage is not, I would suggest, a comparison of Martha’s labor versus Mary’s intimacy, so set that aside for the next few minutes. What, then, is it about?
In context, Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary immediately follows Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan. That parable flows directly into this story; there’s not a single verse in between them. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, as we were reminded last week, is Jesus’ radical, grace-filled redefinition of our neighbors and our responsibilities to and for others as disciples of Jesus. Its implications are profound for everything we do in the world, for our understanding of our responsibilities, and for our conception of the ways we both receive and extend love and grace to those around us. The Parable of the Good Samaritan can’t be glossed over quickly, with the easy assumption that we understand its depths. It demands that we pause and take stock, that we read it again and again, even that we anguish over whether or not we want to believe and follow Jesus’ words.
But in the very next verse—the very next verse—Martha pulls Jesus into her house, sits him down like an ornament, and moves on into the next room. She doesn’t pause at all. She doesn’t ask questions of Jesus. She doesn’t wonder about the nuances of his teaching. She doesn’t take stock of her own life and consider the transformation that may be required of her, of her values and her commitments in the world. Martha only reads the headline, so to speak. To quote the Columbia University study with which I began, she makes no “effort to go deeper.” Perhaps Martha believes she has Jesus figured out. Perhaps she assumes uncritically that whatever Jesus has to say will agree with, rather than challenge, the life she already lives. Surely, Martha becomes impatient with those who actually want to hear Jesus, to consider and understand him, to vet the whole article before living it and sharing it.
No so, Mary. Mary is entranced and likely even perplexed by the words of Jesus. She can’t go about her routine as usual, because the words of Jesus—not merely the headlines (so easily misconstrued) but the heart of the Gospel message—have stopped her in her tracks. Luke doesn’t tell us that Mary wants to give Jesus a warm hug, but that she wants to sit at his feet and listen. Mary wants to understand the challenge that Jesus presents to her worldview. She wants to wrestle with what the Gospel means for the way she acts, interacts, speaks, believes, decides, cries, sings; not just as she sits there in the comfort of her living room, but in every moment hereafter. Ultimately, Mary will share what she hears, and it will go viral like nothing our internet has ever seen, but what she shares won’t be a sound bite; or a willfully misinterpreted verse, wrenched from context; or a cozy platitude; or a half-baked theology that serves to undergird the way of life she already enjoys. Mary, who has taken the time to listen, who has made the effort to go deep and allow the words of Jesus to absorb into the marrow of her soul, will share the Gospel, the love of God-in-Christ that redefines everything.
St. Paul knows that Gospel. He shares it, too, and never more profoundly as in today’s Letter to the Colossians. If ever we wonder whether Jesus is merely a headline, to be slapped up and then quickly forgotten, listen to Paul:
“For in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”[iii]
Jesus can’t be skimmed. He can’t be touted as a headline in defense of some argument, or support of some theology, or in reinforcement of a life already chosen. Jesus is the whole thing, and we either take the whole of his Gospel of crazy, radical, life-altering love in all of its implications, or none of it. God knows, our world needs it. Like Mary, we must be entranced and perplexed and challenged to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, so that we can be changed and then share those words that are to “have first place in everything,” through which Jesus “reconciles to himself all things,” and by which we encounter grace and find our lives in God.
[ii] Luke 10:38-42
[iii] Colossians 1:16-20.