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Mary & Martha

March 25, 2009

Sometimes all it takes is just the mention of these two names to make eyes roll, shoulders hunch, and a shift in chairs as body positions change.  So let’s change our body positions, relax our hunched shoulders, fix our eyes on this passage and perhaps recognize something new– I know I did.

Luke 10:38-42 and John 11:1-44 provide us with insight into the faith and relationship these women and their brother shared with Jesus.  I encourage you to read through both passages.  I don’t think you’ll be quite so hard on Martha as you realize this woman, probably the oldest (it is she who welcomes Jesus into her home) is one of two mentioned in the Gospels declaring Jesus as the Messiah (John 11:27).  You probably are thinking of the other one to do this, Peter (Matthew 16:16).

Luke 10:38-42:  “Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.  But 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.”  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Most of the time when this passage is talked about, and most often it seems to be that it is talked about among women — in studies or women’s gatherings — women feel guilty.  We most easily identify ourselves with Martha, not Mary.  The picture of Mary is serene, sitting at the feet of Jesus.  The picture of Martha is often associated with being too busy; fussing about what needs to be done and isn’t getting done because Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus. The possibility exists to have the message go down any number of avenues, but for the most part women end up feeling guilty because we know that we often have so much to do that never gets done, but deep down inside we want to be Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Here’s the kicker — guys feel guilty too.  We all can get caught up comparing ourselves with where we think we are with where we think we should be.  Let’s move past or at least away from that for the time being.

Take a moment and read through the passage again.  What jumps out to you?  I love the fact that Martha could be (and was) so frank with Jesus as to ask him if he didn’t care that Mary wasn’t helping.  We get a quick glimpse into the relationship Martha had with Jesus.  She was “herself” and could express herself to Jesus.  She also calls him Lord, offering insight into Christ’s identity and place in the relationship.

If you want you can read it through a third time (Yes, I am really trying to move us away from the guilt mentality associated with this passage).

The passage doesn’t tell us that Mary left Martha hanging in the kitchen preparing the meal.  Luke moves from Martha welcoming Jesus into her home (vs. 38) right into Mary, “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying (vs. 39).  Could it be that when Jesus sat down (perhaps taking his place at the table) that Mary also sat down?  Who else would be sitting at the table?  His followers, his disciples and perhaps invited guests (maybe the neighbors).  But don’t move too quickly past this.  Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus.  This is a posture of a rabbi with his disciples.  That Mary is identified as sitting at the feet of Jesus identifies her as a disciple of Jesus.  Jesus included not only men as disciples, but also women.  Luke is making quite certain we understand this.

Luke says that Martha is distracted by her many tasks (vs. 40).  She tells Jesus that he needs to tell Mary to get up and come and help.  Martha recognizes Jesus’ place, he is the one with authority.  But as is often the case with Jesus he reveals the underlying issue behind Martha’s distractions, the real need.  Remember the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends, into the home where Jesus was teaching because there was no way to get in?  What did Jesus tell him?  His sins had been forgiven.  Jesus gets to the heart of matters.

Jesus tells Martha that she is worried and distracted by many things (vs. 41).  So the issue is really not Mary helping, it is something else, actually something more since Jesus mentions more than one.  What could Martha be worried about and distracted about if it isn’t the serving and clean-up?  Kenneth Bailey reminds us that to “be distracted one must be distracted from something by something.”[1] So while Martha is distracted by her expected obligation of cooking and serving, she is also preoccupied by something else.  Jesus understands this; he knows she is worried and distracted by many things.

I don’t know about you but when I am cooking or washing dishes or just about any other household chore I am usually thinking about others things — whatever is pressing upon me is usually what I think about.  Perhaps I am not alone in this.  Perhaps Martha was also letting the underneath stuff to come to mind while she was preparing the meal.

Kenneth Bailey in his book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: a Cultural Study in the Gospels, recognizes that “Martha is more naturally understood to be upset over the fact that her ‘little sister’ is seated with the men and has become a disciple of Rabbi Jesus.”[2] O.k., you might be wondering why is this a big deal; we’ve already gone over this.  It’s possible that we miss the cultural impact that Martha felt as she witnessed her sister taking her place among what had been only reserved for men.  As a Middle Eastern Biblical scholar Bailey understands the implications and worries that Martha would have running through her head.  “This is disgraceful!  What will happen to us!  My sister has joined this band of men.  What will the neighbors say?  What will the family think?  After this who will marry her?  This is too much to expect!”[3]

Instead of seeing this as Jesus getting on Martha’s case, perhaps we need to recognize that Jesus does in fact understand and identify with Martha’s concerns. Perhaps we need to see that Jesus is defending Mary’s right to be at the feet of Jesus as a disciple.[4] In our day that is the equivalent of continuing her theological studies. She has taken her place in what had before only been allowed for men. Remember Mary is single (as far as we know). A double “whammy” if you will. “The traditional cultural separation between men and women no longer applies.”[5]

I identify myself as a “Mary,” but I have been worried and distracted like Martha. I realized last year that I had held myself back because I am a woman. I didn’t want to be seen as a “disturber of the peace” or a Christian feminist (because of my perception of what people would associate that to be – I graduated in the 70’s remember—the height of the feminist movement). I recall my reluctance to share at a congregational meeting that I was going to seminary because I believed God was calling me into some type of pastoral ministry. I wasn’t quite certain what that would look like but I was taking steps forward. I knew that what I was doing didn’t fit with our culture.

I was like Martha, worried and distracted by many things. But I am coming to terms with God’s calling on my life. And to not follow that calling would be disobedience. I have to own who I am and whose I am.

So while there is tension felt in living, there is also a deeper shalom, even if I am not certain what is ahead for me.

How is it for you?


[1] Kenneth C. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2008], p. 193.

[2] Ibid., p. 193.

[3] Ibid., p. 193.

[4] Ibid., p. 194. “The word portion can mean a portion of food at a meal. Jesus is defending Mary’s right to become his disciple and continue her “theological studies.”

[5] Ibid., p. 194.

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