This is a well-known passage that has sometimes been badly used to attack women, to present a never-good-enough situation where every option is wrong. So it’s a passage with danger in it. Yet to me it’s also a passage that’s got plenty of hope and encouragement. And first of all I want to say that I think it’s a mistake to treat this story as simply one about the domestic sphere. We’ll touch on that on and off, but ultimately it’s a story about discipleship and what it means to be a disciple, and it’s a story about hospitality, and what it means to offer hospitality. But ultimately I think it’s really important not to see it as putting two different ways of living in conflict with each other. The answer to Martha and Mary is one of both/and, rather than either/or.
|Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, Jan Vermeer|
It’s important to notice that this was Martha’s house that Jesus entered. Not Martha’s husband or brother or father’s house. She was the householder. If you know John’s account of the death of Lazarus, Martha and Mary are described there as his sisters, but here in Luke no such link is made, and this story about Martha and Mary is only found in Luke. These events were taking place in a deeply patriarchical society, but there were women who owned property, and it was often those women who provided great amounts of practical support to Jesus in his ministry. So she was the host both in terms of her work around the house and in terms of the invitation.
There's a crucial word in the Greek where Martha complains about Mary not helping her. It's often translated as service or serving, but the Greek word is diakonia, and it's the root of our English word deacon. That's a specific ministry in many church traditions. In some of the congregational churches which became URC, the people we now call elders, who run the church both spiritually and practically, were called deacons. The church of England ordains its clergy as deacons before they become priests. And in the church where I grew up, we had both deacons to do practical leadership and elders to do spiritual leadership. But in all these traditions, the role of a deacon is a distinct form of ministry which involves practical service.
So when Martha is rushing around doing things, she's deaconing, she’s doing the work of a deacon, an act of ministry. We often think she’s simply doing domestic chores, preparing food or bringing guests drinks or whatever, and that may well have been part of it, but the text doesn’t actually say this. It’s equally possible she’s doing wider work in supporting these travelling preachers, Jesus and his disciples, of finding them accommodation or working out routes or warning of dangerous places along the way or seeking out money for them. Jesus told his followers not to carry a bag or sandals, and that only worked if there were people like Martha to welcome them and care for their needs.
So it’s little wonder that Martha was distracted by all that she has to do. The Greek word that is translated as distracted is really strong. It means she was close to breaking point, and is the root of our word spasm. Martha was not just some flighty woman having a bit of a moan, as she’s all too frequently been described. Martha was a strong woman carrying out an important ministry, and was driven practically to despair by the amount she had to do. Now maybe she’d taken on too much but maybe it was just the nature of the work. It continues today. I’ve been reading a book [Invisible Women] by the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, and she observes if you look at both paid and unpaid work, including household and caring work as well as formal employment, then women today work longer hours than men in almost every part of the world, and it has significant effect on their physical and mental health.
One more thing to say about Martha’s work. As I’ve said earlier, hospitality really mattered in that society, a message that’s emphasised through the Old Testament, and she was the one that was showing hospitality to others. Indeed, the story of Martha and Mary immediately follows the parable of the Good Samaritan, that tale of a man who helped others, and the closing words from Jesus to that parable are “Go and do likewise”.
This is all really important, because there’s a common reading of the story which is to downplay all this practical work of Martha. The closing phrase that “Mary has chosen the better part” has often been used to suggest that women’s work matters less, and especially that women’s domestic work matters less. I don’t know how many people have read or seen The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Attwood’s dystopia about a fundamentalist totalitarian society that places women into strictly policed roles. The domestic servants in that book are called Marthas, after this story, and in the TV adaptation they’re constantly shown in these very drab olive green dresses, and always working and working. But it’s really unfair to our Martha here, as I’ve shown already, and it’s really unfair to those who do domestic work, and especially women. Because the meals need to be cooked, the disciples need to be fed, the laundry needs to be done.
I’ve spoken quite a lot in support of Martha, so let’s turn to Mary. She’s also a really interesting figure. Because she was acting in a deeply counter-cultural role here, was really challenging her patriarchal society by engaging so actively with Jesus, in a way that was really uncommon for women. This phrase about sitting at his feet, as illustrated by Vermeer, can perhaps be taken literally, but it’s not just about gazing up at him adoringly. To sit at the feet of a teacher was to listen to them actively, to be their direct student, to absorb not just their words and messages but also their lifestyle, their way of talking and thinking. It was learning through observation, very much like being an apprentice. And of course the name for that kind of student was a disciple. Mary was actively being a disciple of Jesus. And it’s clear she was really listening, really absorbed in Jesus’ teaching.
There’s an interesting observation in one of the commentaries [by Richard Swanson] I read this week. The Jewish tradition of studying Torah is that it’s always carried out in dialogue with others. You need a study buddy. It’s not a matter of reading it and finding the right interpretation by yourself. Everything is open to discussion, debate, and there are no final conclusions. Jewish texts such as the Talmud are full of alternative interpretations and debates between scholars. And we can think of Jesus and Mary in this light, discussing the meaning and implications of a particular text or set of ideas. But then Mary is carrying out a vital service to Jesus, in discussing and debating with him, in enabling him to share and develop his ideas. Mary is showing hospitality to Jesus, in a different way from Martha, but a way that is just as important.
Because I think it’s quite wrong to put Mary and Martha in opposition to each other. Neither is better than the other. Both are necessary ways of being. And both are open to all of us. Jesus is clearly in favour of people showing hospitality, and he’s in favour of all people being able to learn and engage with important subjects. We all need to do both of these. “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” goes the question, and it’s the wrong question. The only good answer is “both of these, at different times of life”. The theologian Richard Rohr talks about the way that at one time in our life, we’re active in the world, rushing around, driven by success; and at other times we’re slower, quieter, more contemplative. He links it to different stages of life, younger and older people, but it’s also possible for us to live in these different ways at any time of our live. In other words, sometimes we’re Martha and sometimes we’re Mary.
And so when Jesus says “Martha, Martha”, he’s not criticising her or condemning her lifestyle or way of acting in the world. He’s offering her an invitation, that she too could exhibit the kind of discipleship that Mary was living, in addition to her own form of discipleship and ministry.
And he offers us the same invitation, the same opportunity to live in a different way. Even if we spend our time rushing around madly distracted by our many tasks, we’re invited to sit at Jesus’ feet and absorb his message. And likewise, if our place is to contemplate and read and discuss and think, then that needs to be tempered by action and caring work for the needs of others. Because it’s not about being either Martha or Mary. It’s about being both. And in that way we’re enabled to live in the fullness that Jesus promised to his disciples, and also to enable others to live in that fullness. Amen.