The story of Mary and Martha is well known among Christians, Christian women in particular. Its a story that can be used to place women.
See? This a woman’s natural physical tendency, to be in the kitchen. And see? This is a woman’s natural emotional tendency, to be worried and anxious about many things. Whether Martha, or by extension all women, is worried and anxious simply because there is a lot of work to do for one person or because she is proud and her ego in hospitality is getting in her way, doesn’t ultimately matter. We just know, or think we know, or are told, that Martha is in her rightful place, the kitchen, and seized by her natural, sinful attitudes about the work before her.
And, we know, are told, or think we know, that Mary has summoned the spiritual character to eschew the kitchen, to set aside her sinful nature, and sit at Jesus’ feet.
One writer said the lesson here is that we should not be so distracted by good things, even serving and hospitality, that we neglect our own spiritual growth.
Another emphasized the value of listening to Jesus and spending time with him.
Another described the differences between the motivations of the two sisters. Mary, he claims, is motivated by love. Martha, by anxiety.
Another contrasts the Martha Spirit and the Mary Spirit, the busy busy buy spirit and the spirit of restful adoration.
The assumption in all these, (good and positive lessons) is that what Jesus is contrasting is Martha’s harried posture and Mary’s worshipful posture.
I think we have read this passage with far too small an idea of who Jesus is and what he came to accomplish. I wonder if there is something more at play, something that adds to the story and makes it powerfully relevant and not just to overworked women.
I imagine most meal times when a mixed group of guests was present as: women in the kitchen and men at the table. Possibly the guest of honor is speaking, or teaching, or leading a discussion. Probably, that’s what Jesus was doing. The text is not explicit, but I think we can conclude from the first sentence and from the amount of work put on Martha’s shoulders, that the disciples were also present for dinner.
Martha chose the expected position and role for women.
Mary insisted on her right to sit with the men.
Martha didn’t look outside the box of culture and took up her work.
Mary decided she belonged with Jesus, which is to say, where the men were. She had every right to be there, too. Jesus himself confirmed it.
When Martha complains to Jesus, everyone expects him to say, “You’re right! Mary, get up and go help her.”
We don’t, generally, expect Jesus to either:
+ Say, “Hey, Martha, I know you aren’t actually upset about the work. You are actually upset because your sister has just overturned the cultural norms and you are feeling anxious about that, and slightly confused.”
+ Summon fishes and bread from the heavens and wave his hand around to create a nice meal and clean it up, ala Mrs. Weasley?
+ Or, tell some of those lazy-bum disciples (somewhere between 12 and 72 of them), to get off their lazy bums and help? That would have been radical!
But no. Jesus says Mary chose what was best and that it wouldn’t be taken away from her. She chose to place herself right in the front, in the middle, in the center, near the Teacher, and she wasn’t going to be kicked out to the ‘women’s place.’
Mary probably had to elbow her way up there, or maybe she manipulated the situation by carrying a bowl of washing water and when she reached Jesus, instead of moving on after he washed his hands and feet, she simply plopped right down in front of him. Who knows how she got there. What we know is that she is, likely, the lone woman in this room.
Jesus does not say that Mary is so enthralled with him, or so deeply spiritual, or so eager to learn, that she is allowed to stay. He does not praise her for choosing learning over serving. That is what readers assume about this passage.
Neither does he say he is explicitly commending her for her courage in taking her rightful place as a woman among men. But I think we can equally assume that about this passage.
Maybe this is not a story about choosing love or service. Or about checking our motivations. Or about harried women versus worshipful women. Or a quaint tale to teach women the value of choosing Bible reading over dish washing.
Probably, its all that. Probably, it is so much more than all that.
This is a radical story about a woman courageously asserting herself, claiming the humanity that is her right by dint of being created and imbued with the image of God, and being dignified for that courage.
In sitting there, Mary is saying she belongs in the Kingdom, too. She demanded a place, edged her way in, neglected the opinions of men and women and the cultural norms. She saw that Jesus offered himself first to the lowly and the outcast, and said, “Me, too. I, also, belong in the presence of Jesus.”
Even more importantly, she is not saying she, only, belongs there, but that women belong there. The oppressed, the neglected, the overlooked, the discriminated against, those at the margins. We all belong in the presence of Jesus. We all have the right to claim our place at the table.
Mary chose to belong. That will not be taken away.
Luke 10:38-42, (NIV)
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”