GOSPEL Luke 10:38-42
During his visit to the home of Mary and Martha, Jesus reminds Martha that her concern for her many tasks distracts from the one thing that precedes all else: abiding in the presence of God.
38Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the dystopian novel of Margaret Atwood, infertile women forced to be servants for the ruling class are called Marthas, as their service is considered imitating Martha in this fictitious fundamental Christian society.
Every time this scripture comes up, I get anxious. And I have to stop and listen to Jesus again. Mary has been pitted against Martha so many times in Christian culture that I can’t even. Christians have perpetuated stereotypes of women for too long, contrasting be like this woman, not that woman, and they use the Bible to do it. The deceiving harlot versus the virgin. The chatty prostitute versus the wise homemaker. As if the entire gender of women could be summed up into two stereotypes. “Be a Mary, not a Martha.”
Which then leads to the interpretation of the text demeaning Martha’s “work” in some way – that the real way to be a disciple is to act like Mary – to act like a “man,” and sit at Jesus feet with the rest of the men. Martha becomes a caricature of a woman preoccupied with silly woman things, while Mary is the ideal disciple. Many times, this story is interpreted as presenting one sister upheld at the expense of the other, because we prefer women who do not complain.
In that presentation of the story, Mary seems to be the ideal disciple because she spends her time in devotion instead of activity; Martha seems to be the hysterical woman who has lost perspective; and Jesus seems to be someone who takes all of his provisions for granted. I liken that presentation of Jesus to the preacher who goes on and on about not working too hard in order to take time to listen to Jesus, especially on the Sabbath Day – only to go home after church and sit at a dinner without any thought to how much work went into all that fried chicken dinner on the table. But Jesus isn’t tone deaf – his whole ministry is geared toward sacrificial service, feeding people, and lifting up examples of service.
What exactly is Jesus addressing in his response to Martha? And can we get away from this either-or dichotomy of women? It’s not studious spiritual woman versus homemaking nag. Jesus is not condemning Martha’s service – her diakonia in the Greek is the same root as deacon. She may not have even been making a meal or working in her home – because deaconing, could be seen as a ministry, community wide effort, serving people, finding needs and filling them. Many commentators have written that did not describe domestic tasks, but service or ministry on behalf of Jesus and other disciples. The text doesn’t mention a meal – and Jesus’ response has nothing to do with her service – but with her being pulled in many directions of ministry.
Mary may not have even been home! In Luke 8:1-3, Jesus is noted to be traveling with the twelve as well as “some women.” This scene is followed closely by the sending of “the seventy” in Luke 10:1. Maybe Mary is following Jesus as a traveling disciple and this pericope is an illustration of how followers of Jesus must leave their family behind (9:57-62). Martha wants Jesus to ask Mary to come back to their home or village to take on some of the burden for which Martha is responsible.
Martha’s question does not become so rhetorical if she is asking Jesus if he does not care that she is left alone to manage affairs by herself while her sister is away, perhaps even facing danger. Pulling this all together, it is not Martha’s diakonia with which Jesus has concern, but her being “worried and upset about much.”
Mary’s absence is then the reason for Martha’s overwhelming worry; she wants her sister back with her to help, and not be traipsing about the countryside which is about to get increasingly dangerous as the religious leaders begin to condemn Jesus. That sounds like a more pressing concern than just prevailing upon Jesus to help her get Mary back into the kitchen.
In the previous chapter, Jesus describes the personal cost to be a disciple, leave family and to follow him, it is possible 10:38-42 is an illustration of this cost from the point of view of the family members left behind. Sometimes disciples minister within their familiar surroundings and this is a valid and demanding call, not all are called to leave, but others are called to serve in new locations, to go into the unknown. A familiar theme is repeated, frequently taught by Jesus, that worry is never helpful, and prayer is, whether or not the connection to the next chapter is intended or not.
Mary and Martha’s story is not about getting priorities right and the danger of getting caught up in superfluous housework, but our ability to give it to Jesus when our present situation threatens to overwhelm us. To replace worry with trust and prayer – confident that God provides, and to call on God in our need.
Rather than a cry for help – she makes demands of Jesus to give her the answer to her problem. But in the next chapter, when Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, nowhere in that prayer is included “Jesus, make this person do this for me to fix my problem” Yes, Martha may be overwhelmed with her obligations, but her worry is what Jesus is concerned with. Freeing her from that worry and anxiety and inviting her to a place of trust and faith in him, not her to-do list, or her concern for her sister. Your sister is doing good, he says, the translation here is not really accurate. The word does mean better, it’s not a competition or a comparison. We are all on the same team when the one thing we choose first is our trust in God.
We don’t hear much more about Martha in scripture. It’s presumed that she is among the women who follow Jesus to the cross, but perhaps she was doing her work, her own ministry, in her own neighborhood – busy as usual but freed from the notions of who should do what and help where, freed from the anxiety of her many tasks, to focus on the purpose and goal of her many tasks: serving the Lord and serving her neighbor.
It seems though, in the end even Martha left home. One legend of what will become St. Martha includes her traveling to what is now modern-day France, preaching the gospel, helping her community, and as the legend says – saving a village from a terrible dragon, and taming the beast and leading it around town by her girdle. So much for staying in her kitchen.