Those of us who are preaching Sunday have likely speared a moment for the Greek verb periespato. In Luke 10:40, it is translated as "distracted," as in the phrase "But Martha was distracted by her many tasks."
We ourselves have been awfully distracted lately. Perhaps you have noticed just how infrequent these blog posts have become; trust us when we tell you that blogging is the tip of the things-we're-not-doing iceberg. Shifting to a middle-sized program church brings with it a host of distractions ("host," in this case, meaning an army -- these distractions attack like Mongol raiders). Many things get set aside, including some of the important ones. Even daily prayer becomes a new challenge.
So we've been very much like Martha ourselves lately. Which may be why we are very interested in periespato. Floating about the Interweb, we have been told by two different "authorities" that the sense of the verb is "to be pulled in different directions." How convenient, we thought, since that is just how we are feeling lately.
Also, unfortunately, how mistaken.
Periespato is the third person singular imperfect form of perispao. This verb is compounded of peri- , meaning "around" or, in later literature, "about," and spao, "I draw or pull." It seems to be common enough both in Biblical and non-Biblical literature, and Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich gives it two senses. The first is literal -- "to be pulled or dragged away." The second, a bit more figurative (and the one the lexicon applies to this passage) is "to be distracted, busy, overburdened." Kittel reads it as "fully occupied."
The Latinate verb to distract is a good translation into English: dis- meaning away, traho meaning to pull (related, obviously, to tractor, traction, and so forth). "I was pulled away," we sometimes say, explaining why we left somebody on hold too long.
But there is no sense of different directions implicit in the verb. On the contrary, if we must find a direction, it is best to say that Martha is "dragged around" by her tasks. That is the most literal use of peri- in Greek (think of pericardium, or peripatetic), although Kittel notes that by the late classical period, it is already reserved for poetry. In ordinary speech, "about" or perhaps "away" more nearly reflects the idiom.
This means, among other things, that when Jesus chides Martha for being "pulled away" from sitting at his feet like a true disciple, the language does not create a picture of many different directions in which she might be dragged, of which "toward Jesus" is merely one. On the contrary, there are only two directions: toward Jesus, or toward everything else in the world, everything that is not-Jesus.
She is not pulled, as the online mythology has it, "in different directions." She is pulled in a different direction -- away from Jesus. And his words re-orient her (Oriens nomen eius!) by turning her around (metanoiete!) so that she faces in the right direction again.
We hope it does likewise to us. And soon, please, Jesus.