By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson
“Some people are Marys, and some are Marthas.”
The little story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel is one that we regularly hear interpreted as a choice between two lifestyles, the “active” and the “contemplative.” Read in context, though, Luke’s message is not that at all. Let’s try to listen to this familiar story with fresh ears.
First, note that we find the story in the immediate aftermath of the Good Samaritan parable. There, we find Jesus challenging a scribe’s sense of “neighbor,” presenting a hated Samaritan as the embodiment of extravagant compassion and hospitality. The introduction of Martha in the next verse seems to position her as precisely one who understands the call to hospitality: “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home” (Lk 10.38). This intro also picks up Jesus’ instructions earlier in Luke 10 which we reflected on two weeks ago, about seeking houses of “peace” that take in itinerant disciples. That the locale is described as “her home” aligns Martha with the other women previously lauded for supporting Jesus’ mission from their own resources (8.1-3).
Luke immediately contrasts Martha with her sister, Mary, who is placed in the position of a disciple: she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (10.39). Luke slyly suggests to readers that there are no men present at all in this home other than Jesus, as there is no mention of male members of the sisters’ family nor of Jesus’ male disciples. The focus is totally on Jesus’ formation of women disciples.
Luke names the key theme: “Martha was distracted by her many tasks…” She speaks up: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” Her language negatively echoes two other speakers in the Gospel. First, her demand matches the man of the crowd who addresses Jesus: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me” (12.13). Second, she is completely self-focused: “my…me…myself…me.” This parallels the rich fool in Jesus’ parable, who talks to himself about his own farming success (12.17-19). Both characters seek to be successful (in providing hospitality and in farming) on their own terms.
This pair of intratextual echoes ought to signal to readers that Martha is not a character to be emulated! For her, as for all of us at times, otherwise laudable acts are poisoned by resentment and judgment of others. This is precisely the focus of Jesus’ response: “Martha, Martha, you are worried (Gk, merimnas) and distracted by many things…” Yet again, our text is connected with Luke 12. Note what Jesus says about being “worried” in the only other places in Luke where the Greek verb merimnaō is used:
“When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say…” (12.11)
He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.” (12.22)
“And can any of you by being anxious add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” (12.25-26)
In all these situations, Jesus counsels, anxiety leads one away from the inner peace that is central to the life of discipleship. In the immediate context, Jesus doesn’t focus exclusively on Martha’s demand for kitchen assistance, but characterizes Martha’s mental state more broadly. There are “many things”—or, more literally, simply “much”—that generates anxious distraction in her.
As a remedy, Jesus directs her—as he previously did to Simon the Pharisee while at table at Simon’s house—to the woman at Jesus’ feet (7.44). Mary, he says, has “chosen the good portion” (Gk, agathen merida). Her physical position anticipates Paul’s self-description as one “brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22.3). Mary and Paul sit at the feet of their teachers, seeking to be formed by them. Sitting around wise teachers became common among Christian circles gathered around folks like Origen in Alexandria, until bishops began to take control of such independent groups in the third century. This is the “one thing” of which there is need, according to Jesus: to focus on the person and Word of the Lord. It is from this practice that one maintains peace amid the endless distractions of empire.
We know well how many communities of radical discipleship can be infected by the spirit of anxiety while carrying out needed tasks. Often, we’ve seen this takes the stereotypical form of women grousing about the men sitting around in biblical debate while there’s the work of hospitality to be done! The ancient patriarchal division of labor continues to threaten to undermine our sincere efforts to be faithful disciples, often pushing women into the “Martha” position of wanting the men to “get off the couch and help us!”
Luke’s point isn’t about male vs. female social expectations in this story, where only women are the subjects of attention. At the same time, women’s anxiety about household tasks—then and now—often does flow out of the patriarchal division of labor that places women in “inner space” and men in “outer (public) space.” As men so often are anxious about money (like the rich fool in the parable), so women have inherited anxiety about the house and hospitality.
Jesus’ purpose here is to exorcise this unclean spirit of anxiety. We hear this in what immediately follows this scene: Jesus’ instruction on prayer, which includes the plea to God to “give us each day our daily bread” (11.3). This sets up his warning against being anxious about food and drink in the following chapter: our prayer is that God provide us, like the Israelites in the wilderness, daily bread (see Exodus 16.4).
The Catholic Worker tradition has sought to enshrine this attitude toward provision and work via the notion of personalism. That is, one is invited by Jesus to receive food or offer labor purely as a gift to or from others (cf. Luke 10.-7-9), without comparing one’s response to that of others or demanding that others emulate one’s own choices.
A little story from our own experience perhaps illustrates what is at stake. Earlier in our journey, we found ourselves living in community on a large rural property which we operated as a retreat house. It was a long way from the house to the street, and, each week, Wes lugged the recycling, garbage and compost bins across the grass and gravel to their pickup point. It wasn’t really that big a task, but that didn’t stop Wes from grousing about why he always had to do it. Others, of course, picked up on this resentment, and stayed out of the way. Eventually, Wes embraced the personalist approach and took out the cans as a gift. Either way, the needed task got done, but what a difference it made both in Wes and those around him!
Now, many years later, our circle offers a community lunch that flows out of our Thursday morning prayer and Bible engagement gathering at our home. The bountiful meal is a collaborative effort of many creative hands, as the sample version of our weekly meal planning below indicates. No one is anxious or distracted—at least not very often—when so many share so joyously in the opportunity to prepare and to share food with our sisters and brothers from the margins. We know this is because each week, we all chose the “good portion” first, and only then proceed to the tasks of hospitality. May we all cast out the destructive spirit of anxiety wherever and whenever it arises, and live in the peace that comes from focusing on Jesus and his Word.
A sample planning list for our “breakfast for lunch” meal
Breakfast clam chowder – Beate
Crock pot of apple cinnamon steel cut oats- Andrea
Breakfast Casseroles or other breakfast dishes
- 3 dozen eggs, shredded cheese for breakfast burritos – Beate
Cilantro and peppers – Marilyn (Gregor will prepare burritos)
- French toast & chili rellenos – Marilyn
- Breakfast casserole – Jan
- Ham and cheese sandwiches- Sandra
- Cherry Almond breakfast bread – Renee
Hash brown/potato dish
1.Cracker Barrel’s hashbrown casserole- Renee
- Potato dish – Gregor
Cut up fruit for salad
- Pineapple, strawberries, grapes – Rita
- Greens – Tom
- Caesar – Eleanor
3 Cottage cheese and applesauce – Eleanor
Chocolate – Eleanor
Milk 1. 2 gallons in fridge
Orange juice – In fridge
Coffee – Wes
 Which led Origen to flee Alexandria for Caesarea; more on this in Empire Baptized: How “Christianity” Embraced What Jesus Rejected, 2nd-5th Centuries, out September 15 from Orbis Books.