Smartphone notifications often make me feel like a marionette, like I’m attached to a thousand strings pulling at me all at once. Text messages, phone calls, emails, and social media alerts seem to be endless, leading some recent researchers to point out that these distractions are not good for our efficiency and productivity, and they may even pose serious risks to our mental health. In response to these problems, tech companies have begun to incorporate add-ons intended to mitigate the distraction-inducing effects of their products. My most recent iPhone update includes a settings tab called “Focus” allowing me to silence alerts and notifications for sleep, work, and personal time.
I myself am a regular user of these Focus modes. And yet recently, as I have been praying over my work and study, I can’t help but wonder: Would Jesus have used Do Not Disturb mode?
It’s a somewhat disturbing question. Here is a man who, on the one hand, was supremely attentive to those around him—and thus, in one sense, almost impervious to distraction. On the other hand, Jesus does allow himself to be distracted—but in a far different, far better way than we usually do.
The most poignant example of this for me is Jesus’s interaction with the tax collector Zacchaeus in the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that Jesus, while on his way to Jerusalem, came to Jericho “and intended to pass through the town.” 1 Jesus is on a journey here, and he has a clear destination in mind. He probably would have preferred not to be interrupted. And yet, despite his resolute determination to get to Jerusalem, Jesus stops when he notices Zacchaeus up in a tree.
Zacchaeus probably did not expect to be personally addressed by Jesus, and yet Jesus speaks directly to him. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” 2 I can only imagine the consternation this would have caused in the minds of Jesus’ entourage. Perhaps they were on a tight schedule, perhaps they had places they needed to be, perhaps it was unseemly to be seen speaking with a tax collector. I can see James chiming in to remind Jesus that they already had plans to stay at another house at the edge of town. Peter protests, asking if Jesus realizes that this man is a chief tax collector, a public sinner. Luke tells us that when the disciples and other onlookers saw Jesus’ action, “they began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.’ ” 3
To Jesus’s disciples, Zacchaeus is a distraction. He is not worth their time. In the name of productivity and efficiency and “doing things according to plan,” they ought to move right on past him. I see myself in Jesus’s disciples here. I spend so much of my life caught up in my own projects and plans. I set my own schedule, I make sure I have the time and the space to complete my responsibilities. The last thing I want to happen on a busy day is for some unforeseen distraction to come up and pull me off task, even if that distraction is another person in need of help.
If I’m honest, there are some distractions that I willingly allow in. Usually, the only distractions that I let capture my attention are ones that are self-serving and salient—a social media notification, the score of a football game, a news update, a text message or email. I’m willing to be distracted by anything that speaks to me, my desires, my interests, my attractions. If the distraction is interesting, like a sudden urge to watch a Youtube video, I’m happy to accept it. If it’s inconvenient, like a real person in need of help, I tend to be less keen to abandon my work.
How different is Jesus’s attitude than my own! In assuming our human nature, Jesus assumed the limited capacity that we have for attention. As he walked about on earth, many different persons and situations competed for his attention. To whom and what did he choose to attend? Jesus chose always to give his attention to the person most in need of it. That meant attending to Zacchaeus and not his own tight schedule or the naysaying crowd. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, that meant attending to her and ignoring the protestations of the scribes and pharisees.
Jesus does allow himself to be distracted, but only by those persons who truly needed him. As we arrange our workday, then, we should consider—what sort of interruptions should we allow in? Perhaps not every text message, every social media notification, every news update is worth our attention. But there may be some that are. I like to think that Jesus, if he were around today, would sometimes turn off notifications and instead attend with a bit more care to a roommate or family member who is lonely. Instead of checking his email constantly, he would set his face resolutely toward his goal and yet always be ready to attend fully to anyone who comes to his door.