Language is a funny thing. I’ve never been good at learning languages, but I’m fascinated by the history of words and how we come to use them. I believe that how we use certain words and phrases often reveals what matters to us.
I was reminded this week in a piece by Juliana Castro that verbs offer especially important clues to the way different cultures value and measure things.[i] In English, attention is something you pay. We talk about paying attention. In Spanish attention is something you lend. In German attention is something you gift. In Italian and French you “do” attention.
That American preference for the phrase “paying attention” has me thinking about all the ways that we have commodified attention. Everybody and everyone wants our attention, and they’re hoping that they can leverage it for a profit. You’ve probably had the experience of doing a Google search – or even just mentioning an idea near your phone – and suddenly your online space is flooded with ads related to whatever it is you were investigating.
I posted a few pictures from my national parks trip, and suddenly my timeline was full of ads for tents and backpacks and every kind of outdoor gear in the world. I want to say to the team at Facebook, “Look, just because I did glamping for a couple of days doesn’t mean that I’m going to go live in the woods now. You can stop.” But they’re hoping that I’ll pay attention – and that I will pay these advertisers for what they’re selling.
Notice how people pay attention in today’s gospel. Because that attention says a lot about the world of power that Herod occupies, a world in which everything has a price.
Herod is having a birthday bash. So he wants people to pay attention to him. He’s invited the courtiers and officers and leaders of Galilee because of course those are the people whose attention is most valuable.
They’re all paying attention to a young woman dancing, Herod’s niece turned stepdaughter. It’s a tangled family tree. Herod has essentially stolen his brother’s wife Herodias. John the Baptist had been calling attention to that move in a way that no one cared for, least of all Herodias herself.
Herodias, meanwhile, is paying attention to the politics of that party, looking for an opportunity to get her revenge against John the Baptist.
The young woman, who delights everyone with her dancing, doesn’t know what to do when Herod tells her she can have anything she wants, even half his kingdom. This game is out of her league. She’s been taught how to be the object of everyone’s attention. She has not been taught how to be the subject of her own life. She runs to her mother for advice.
The girl brings back the request prompted by her mother – the head of John the Baptist on a platter. That demand certainly gets Herod’s attention, and for reasons that are somehow related to keeping his word, Herod dispatches his soldiers to behead John.
This world is one in which everything can be bought or bartered, sold or stolen. Herod can take the wife that he wants. The men can make girl dance for their entertainment. Herodias can ask for a man’s head on a platter. It’s a stark and violent reminder that in this kind of world, whatever happens always comes at a cost to someone. In this case John pays the price for telling the truth about right and wrong.
This is how John dies. John, the one who told people to prepare the way of the Lord for Jesus, the one who baptized Jesus, the one who lived completely as himself. He dies because people gave their attention to the wrong things and didn’t want to be called out on it.
Jesus doesn’t play much of a role in this story. I added a few verses, though, borrowing the beginning of next week’s gospel because I wanted us to notice how the attention of Jesus and his followers works differently than that of Herod and his circle.
Notice that the disciples do not look away from the violence and the horror of their friend John’s death.[ii] They show up to claim the body. They make sure that John receives a proper burial, even as their hearts must be breaking to realize what can happen when you give your attention to doing what is right.
The piece that I read about language this week also reminded me that attention and tenderness share a root, the Latin word tendere, which means to stretch or to tense.[iii] It provides the root word for the ways that we say that we care, that we try, that we are exposed to being hurt. What makes us tender also makes us vulnerable.
After some of the disciples tend to John’s body, Jesus then tends to his disciples. And h does so with tenderness. He calls them away to a deserted place to get some rest. Jesus gives them attention, not to impress them or exploit them or make sure they owe him one. He tends to their needs because he loves them.
And though they encounter a large crowd that gets in the way of their plan to rest, Jesus also shows tenderness towards the people who have gathered. He has compassion for them because they are like sheep without a shepherd.
We’ll hear in a couple of weeks that familiar story of Jesus feeding the thousands. For now it is enough to remember that the way Jesus throws a dinner party is so much different than the way Herod does things.
This is the most fundamental way in which Jesus is a threat to the world that Herod leads. Herod pays attention only to what will serve his own interests. Jesus gives his attention to those from whom others turn away. The sick, the lost, the struggling, the worried, the anxious, the fearful.
What we give our attention to is an expression of our faith. If you were to do an audit of who or what gets your attention on any given day, what might it reveal? There would be some days that I wouldn’t be proud of. On those days my attention is claimed disproportionately by things that are ultimately not important: by my phone, by the anxious stories that take up space in my head, by the distractions that don’t deserve my time. The days I feel the most satisfied are the ones on which I’ve been able to give my attention to what I love most – the best parts of ministry, my friends and family, a good book, prayer and reflection, a chance to be with people and hear their stories.
As Christians we’re almost always better able to give our attention to what matters when we remember what Jesus has given first to us – not only his tender attention, but his very life. When our attention gets fixated on death or despair, Jesus transforms that death and despair into life and hope.
This week I hope that you won’t just pay attention. I hope you will give your attention. Give your attention to someone who needs it from you the most, without distraction and without expectation for repayment.
And I pray that you will receive the gift of someone else’s attention – with a holy tenderness that will nourish your soul. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iii] See endnote 1.