Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him [Jesus] and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”
The evening has been a long one. And through it all Martha has not had a moment’s rest. Since before Jesus and his companions arrived in her home there has been so much to do; the room to make ready, the food to prepare, the guests to welcome, dishes to be carried to and from the table, and the cleaning! And through it all all Martha has laboured on alone. She has not received the support and the assistance that she expected, that she deserves from her sister Mary. All evening, all she has done has sat there at Jesus’ feet, listening! Anybody would think she was a man! Finally Martha’s patience is exhausted. She goes to Jesus and demands that he insist that Mary she do as she ought and help her sister.
Martha is not the first person nor the last person to come to Jesus and demand that he intervene and resolve their personal grievance and to come away disappointed, even shocked. Watching these events unfold, and hearing Jesus’ response to Martha’s complaint, we are perhaps left to wonder what all this means. Why did Jesus reply as he did? And what are we meant to learn from Luke remembering this incident for us?
There is something quite striking about Mary’s behaviour and Jesus’ reaction to it. What Mary does breach social conventions about the roles of men and women. We know that the roles of men and women in the world in which Jesus lived and ministered were much more clearly defined than they were for us now. Certain spaces and activities were defined as male. Other spaces and activities were defined as female. Especially: the public space; outside, the street, the field, the marketplace, and the dining room were male. The private space; the home, the kitchen were female. Working for money and public debate were male. Domesticity and intimate talk were female. That these roles are no longer clear as clear cut and as sharply define is, in part, the result of passages like this one in the New Testament. Indeed it seem very likely, reading between the lines of what Luke in particular writes, that the earliest church was a good deal more open and inclusive about the roles which women could fulfil than even the later church itself was willing to accept until quite recently.
Mary has assumed the position and the posture of a disciple. She is sat at his feet after dinner, listening. In conventional terms she is occupying a male space and assuming a male role. And Jesus resists an attempt to deny her a place among the disciples. Martha’s frustration and annoyance is directed at her sister because Mary is not fulfilling the role that might be assigned to her as a woman. Martha has been left to do all the work by herself because Mary should be helping her and isn’t. But Jesus refuses to reinforce that gender role. He declares: Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her. Mary is welcomed and accepted as a disciple. It seems that the church that Luke knew as he was writing his gospel down, was a church where no distinction was made between the status of women and men. Both could be disciples of Jesus in all respects without exceptions. And certainly this is the message which Christians have heard from this incident and others like it in the last generation or two. And the portrayal of Jesus on this occasion is entirely consistent with the larger picture that we have of him and his ministry and the attitudes that he promotes. Time and again Jesus crosses and breaks down the boundaries that society, culture and even religion have built up dividing the human race into separate groups, alienated from and even in conflict with one another. Jesus crosses the boundary between; the acceptable and the unacceptable, the clean and the defiled, The healthy and the sick, even between the living and the dead. He ignores he boundaries between Jews and Samaritans, and Jews and Gentiles. He ignores the boundaries between social classes, and indeed the boundary between male and female. This is far from the only occasion when we see Jesus accepting a woman as a spiritual equal to men. Jesus crosses and breaks down those barriers so that all humans may recognise that they are all, all equally children of God. And that the kingdom of God is a place where they can be all equally welcomed without exception.
The only trouble is: Our sympathy lies with Martha! We side with her. This is one of those occasions where, whilst we recognise the truth of what Jesus is saying, after all it is Jesus who is speaking, we recognise the truth of what he says, but nonetheless feel a little uneasy about the consequences. Martha’s complaint is valid. Why should she be left alone to do all the work, when there are others who might have been expected to help her? The trouble is that Mary’s place among the disciples is only secured and defended at the cost of her sister. The validity of one woman’s discipleship is asserted only at the cost of rather harsh criticism of another woman. And this might come as a surprise because; Jesus on the whole, and especially in the picture Luke paints of him, is in favour of service as the very definition of discipleship!
After all this incident in Martha’s house takes place immediately after Jesus has described the risk taking humble service of the Good Samaritan, a man, and told a lawyer, a man, to go and do likewise. What Martha has spent her frustrating evening doing is what elsewhere Jesus has insisted disciples should be doing, getting on with the business of taking care of those around her.
Martha knows that work is love made visible. She has demonstrated that she understands that loving her neighbour involves caring service of them, work! And perhaps in the history of the church this is something that women has consistently understood better than men. And too often it has been used against them. Women have and still are often denied prominent roles of leadership in the church because of the good example they are setting in the background, all the work they are doing unseen, and for practical purposes unappreciated. We can almost hear Martha mutter under her breath in response to Jesus’ rejection of her request and his praise of Mary actions, we can almost hear her growl: “That easy for you to say. You’re not the one she’s not helping in the kitchen!”
The trouble is it has been too easy to hear Jesus’ words:
Mary has chosen the better part.
And hear them as an implicit belittling of the work that Martha has been doing. The welcoming, preparing, serving, cleaning all have to be done. But those things are not as important as listening. But women have been left to do those things. And what they have been left to done has been consistently undervalued, even by the church which has said that they are the ideal of discipleship. And women have consistently been left without status in the church as men have taken all the prominent roles with authority. It is not that we want to hear Jesus say to Mary: “Get up and help your sister, it’s active caring that is the true mark of discipleship”
What we want Jesus to say is: “You’re right Martha. But gender roles are oppressive! This shouldn’t all fall on you and your sisters. You male disciples get up and do some proper caring! Be real disciples!”
Actually we, both male and female take, Martha’s side because we know where she is coming from. Much as this passage has been used, and should be used, to justify women’s fullest participation in all aspects of church life, feminism is not really what is in view for Jesus. We take Martha’s side because we know her frustration. As time has gone on in the recent life of the church we have been expected to do more and more, with the less and less resources
There comes a point where even we are tempted to cry out: Lord do you not care my sister, and my brother, has left me to do all the work by myself? Jesus answer doesn’t really address gender roles or any of the other boundaries that exist between people. His position on that issue is already crystal clear, he crosses and breaks down all of those boundaries. What Jesus has in mind here is the issue of priorities. What Martha does is good. But it is getting in the way of what is essential. The life of Christians and the life of our churches very often consists of doing good things, but at the expense of the most important. We do busy ourselves with caring for our neighbours, and modern technology has enabled us to see, in a way that the lawyer who was told the parable of the good Samaritan could not see, that “neighbour” is a category that includes everyone in need. We are, let’s face it, driven to distraction by the sheer effort that is now required to keep our churches open in the face of dwindling congregations and rising costs. No one should deny that those are good, important, even necessary things. And it is surprising how committed we can become to those things at the expense of our own discipleship, knowing why and for whom we might want to do those things in the first place. We have come to share Martha’s state of mind; worried and distracted by many things. Given where we are as Christians and churches now perhaps we should hear Jesus’ response as a reassurance:
“There is need of only one thing.”
In all our busyness we can lose sight of what is most important of all: our devotion to Jesus. Our exclusive loyalty to him is what counts. Before everything else we should learn to be disciples of him. That is why, at that moment Mary has chosen the better part. Jesus once reminded the devil of what it says in Deuteronomy:
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” [Luke 4:4, Deuteronomy 8:3]
Martha and we are pointed to the truth that doing good isn’t everything but has to proceed from knowing Jesus and hearing his word.
Two incidents follow in quick succession. First Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, then we witness Martha’s frustration with her sister Mary. Perhaps those two passages should always be read together. There is a time to do, and for the lawyer that time was right away. And there is a time to listen, for Mary and her distracted sister Martha it was that time. For us knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example were to apply to us: is it the Samaritan or is it Mary? His answer would probably be “yes”
The One Thing Needful by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0