By Laurel Dykstra
Luke 10. 38-42
I don’t like the story of Mary and Martha.
Most of us already know if we are more like Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet, or more like Martha, who is distracted by her many tasks. And it seems to me that no matter how nice they try to be about it, most of the sermons and commentaries on this passage seem to say, “Yay Mary and Boo Martha”
And any niceties about how Jesus doesn’t say that Martha’s work isn’t valuable, just that Mary has “chosen the better part,” still seem like a put-down to me, and a condescending one at that.
So good people, especially women, and workers are left looking or feeling bad about the work they do, or the kind of person they are.
I think that most of the people who work in the kitchen, or polish the silver, or empty bedpans, or wash sheets already know that their work is not glamorous or revered or considered important.
They don’t need Jesus or the church or another Sunday sermon to tell them that.
The gospel of Luke is the only place where we hear this story— five verses and barely one hundred words.
But a great deal of energy has been spent on explaining why Mary’s sitting at the feet of Jesus was the better part and why Martha’s work was not.
Usually the passage has been interpreted to apply to the active life and the contemplative life, Martha has suffered a great in charicature deal to make this point. She has been described as bustling, scatterbrained, small minded, passive aggressive, complainer, workaholic, overfunctioning, quarrelsome, and what’s more she talks too much.
Some more recent readings look at the passage differently:
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, says that this passage dates from the time of the early church and it refers to a controversy over women’s leadership roles. Martha who is active in table service is chastened while Mary, who sits quietly, is praised. In short, Luke uses the voice of Jesus to limit women’s leadership roles.
Now other readers say just the opposite, they point out that Mary of Bethany is described several times in scripture at or near the feet of Jesus, and that sitting at the teacher’s feet is the place of a male disciple. These scholars say that Jesus is praising Mary for acting in a way that was against the expectations for women at that time.
Still other interpreters take a middle road and say that the story needs to be read along with last week’s Gospel, the story of the Samaritan. When the passages are read together we see how Jesus shocks the people who listen to him, two unlikely characters—a Samaritan man and an uppity woman held up as the examples of what it means to –do the word of God (the Samaritan) and to hear the word of God (Mary). (so both the active and contemplative life are praised)
All of these ways of reading Mary and Martha are faithful, and based on good scholarship and true to the text. But none of them really does it for me
To me, Martha’s question Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work myself? speaks loudest and sticks with me the longest
It sticks with me because I know what it is like to have assigned myself too large a task and then feel angry because no one else is helping.
But it sticks with me because Jesus and Luke don’t answer my question—If the better part is sitting at Jesus’ feet how will the work get done?
In the life of Jesus and in the gospel of Luke particularly, eating, and who you eat with, is important. One commentator has said that in Luke Jesus is either going to eat, eating or coming from a meal. But apart from this passage precious little is said about how food actually gets to the table.
The passage begins “as they went on their way”
From the preceding verses we see that Jesus is traveling with a group of disciples. This is not a case of Martha adding one more plate for Jesus. If Jesus is following the same pattern as he sets out for his disciples earlier in the chapter, they will be there for a period of days. He and his followers will make his host’s house a base of operations, for eating, drinking, sleeping and healing.
The itnerant kingdom movement, the Jesus Way, was dependent on the hospitality of Martha and women like her who opened their homes.
This passage is a sort of dictioray of stress and anxiety—in only two verses (40 and 41) there are four different words for worry.
First of all, Martha is described as distracted by her work, using a Greek word that at its root means to be pulled in all directions
(anyone familiar with that feeling?)
So she asks Jesus, and none too gently, “don’t you care,” “aren’t you concerned” (a related word used 7 verses before for what the Samaritan does for a robbed and injured man)
Jesus responds using two synononyms, translated in the NRSV as “Martha –you are worried and distracted” –the first word is worried/anxious, appears in the passage about the lilies of the field—“which one of you by worrying”
The second word appears only here in the NT—so it is a little more ambiguous. The other words like it refer to chaos and the noise crowds
So some translators and interpreters say Martha is making a big fuss
I think this is probably more accurate to see the crowes and chaos as the voices and demands that pull Martha in different directions
What is the work that Martha does? Often preachers trivialize Martha’s work saying, “Jesus doesn’t care if the flower arrangement isn’t perfect, the meal a little late.”
Scripture does not tell us what tasks she performs however words diakonia and diakoneo are critical. The word means serving, often serving a meal.
In the first part of Luke diakoneo is done by women, it is associated with the work of hospitality: Peter’s mother, women who provide for Jesus out of their resources
According to Jennifer Halteman Schrock, after this passage diakoneo is used differently in Luke. Instead of being only associated with women and with hospitality it becomes a much broader term for service and both men and women are enjoined to diakoneo
Diakoneo is no longer just something that the church ladies are supposed to do, service becomes an essential aspect of discipleship—not an add on, or a corrective to keep us humble, but integral to what it means to seek the kingdom.
In later texts diakoneo comes to mean serving at the liturgical table—priestcraft. It is the source of the English word deacon.
Jesus never says how the necessary work is going to get done, but the way the word changes seems to suggest that maybe Jesus’ ideas discipleship changed and grew.
I have no doubt that the author of Luke would have liked women like Martha, who spoke out and exercised liturgical leadership, to tone it down and get along with the Roman authorities. —but it seems that the kingdom movement was characterized by a certain disregard for gender expectations.
The story of Mary and Martha and the importance of diakoneo means that for Christians there is no men’s work or women’s work anymore. There is no dirty work, or lowly work, or servant’s work. Only the work that we all share.
To prepare, serve and eat, to give and receive hospitality at the altar, in the church hall, and the tables at homes and in restaurants, in soup kitchens, at food not bombs meals, at tent cities . And when we leave the table to continue to both do and hear the word of God–together.
The heart of the passage is deceptively simple. The church has been trying and failing and trying again to live this out for 2000 years
To serve alone tears us apart
And to serve together requires us to leave behind our attachment to status and power and notions of what is proper for people like us. whatever our gender, or class, or education, or station.
3 thoughts on “Mary and Martha”
Wow, such a timely and important commentary, thank you for your wise words. I learn so much from your words and your actions.
So refreshing ! Thank you.
This is kind of what I was trying to get my elders to hear at Bible study. They wanted to jump straight to Mary did the right thing and if Mary did the right thing then Martha did the wrong thing. Both are needed. both are important. Both are lifted up by Jesus. He never puts down Martha. He offers both women kindness and liberation. Wish I had found this before that Bible study.