Pentecost 9: 17 July Luke 10:38-42
This passage is wildly ambiguous. Is it giving Mary a male role and otherwise deprecating women’s work, represented in Martha? Is it lauding Mary the submissive female and dismissing the caring Martha? Is it praising impracticality? Is it feminist in orientation, making space for Mary beyond women’s traditional roles? Or is it the opposite?
The first step is surely to try to sense what it is saying and doing in Luke’s narrative. Notice that Martha appears to run the household. She is the one who offers hospitality (10:38). This is a positive role. Hospitality was important. Earlier in the chapter we saw that it played a vital role for the envoys of Jesus, as for Jesus, himself. So we are among the faithful.
Then quite suddenly Luke introduces her sister, Mary, describing her as sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he was saying. This might seem odd to some, especially if they are of the view that such a posture is that of the disciple and that normally disciples of great teachers were male. It would make quite a difference to the interpretation because the underlying issue between the women would be whether one should be allowed to assume what was traditionally a male posture and role or not. Jesus would be defending the rights of Mary to be equally present with men and break free from stereotyped female roles. We shall return to this thought.
Whoever it might be, whatever the gender, Luke assumes that the most important response of the host is to receive Jesus’ word. Martha’s behaviour as host (I use the word in a genderless sense rather than use ‘hostess’ because of its ambiguity) is problematic. It appears that it is seen as problematic primarily because of the manner of Martha’s activity: she is fussing around. Luke uses three different words which depict her behaviour as being distracted, worrying and bothering. Luke does not appear to be attacking the practical roles which belong to being a good host, but the preoccupation with them. The fact that they are traditionally female roles may be irrelevant for the story.
Luke’s story is making a point about attitudes, which can be just as well male as female. It is when practical tasks assume dimensions which subvert best intentions. Being too worried about the arrangements may subvert the purpose of the visit. It is a close cousin to bureaucracy and legalism: being so worried about doing the right thing that what really needs to be done, is left undone or is done poorly. Martha might end up never hearing Jesus’ word.
There are many variants: they include; being so obsessed with the task of producing a new church building that the mission it is meant to service is left undone or given second place; being so worried about the form of the sermon that its real function is forgotten; being so preoccupied with keeping the commandments and remaining good, that no real good is achieved or done.
It would be silly to make the story into a model for behaviour, let alone for women’s behaviour! The story deserves the hearty protest it receives from all those practical people who know that someone has to cook the meal, make up the beds, make sure everything is adequately prepared, when it is understood in this way.
One might imagine that it came to Luke as an anecdote that people used to address a common problem in house churches (the only kind of churches there were!). The common problem would be about hospitality when the local church met in someone’s home. The story may go back earlier to when envoys (apostles) would arrive and could, as Luke reports, even have its origin in Jesus’ own ministry. It is not difficult to imagine the problem. Traditional values would have placed a heavy expectation on the woman of the house. Conflict might easily arise between those in a household who felt it their task to look after the practicalities and those who chose to participate fully in the community. The story is realistic: it would have been acute among family members.
The highest priority must be to listen to the word. The anecdote makes that plain. Martha is gently but firmly being told that she has got it wrong. How frustrating and offensive! She was doing the work, the practical caring and in the process giving herself fully to the task - which is then interpreted as fussing around. Poor Martha! It is time for Martha to go on strike!
In fact, it is time for Martha to go on strike. For part of the message of the word is that everyone is to be included and no one is to be left aside trapped in a role which prevents them from participation. Martha is being encouraged to abandon a role in which she is being held captive to serve the needs of others. She is being challenged to leave behind the stance which says, ‘If I don’t do it, no one else will!’. She doesn’t have to ‘play mother’. As long as she does, some people are not likely to grow up and she will be likely to carry a resentful sense of fulfilment. Not until she abandons that role will the community be challenged to take seriously that caring belongs to all and is not to be shunted off onto one particular person and usually one particular gender.
Some marriages only experience renewal when the women strike and the men are challenged to recognise the inequality that often exists in assumed roles. This is frequently acute when both spouses work and one is still expected to carry the traditional role unquestioned.
Such a story would potentially be liberating. Whether a male posture or not - probably not - Mary (and Martha) are invited to sit as equals at Jesus’ feet with all the rest. So let them all sit down with the gospel and on the same level reflect on what response to this word means in action at home and in the community and who can best exercise their gifts and where!
This story is nevertheless annoying, especially for people who are comfortable with established patterns and roles. They will hear it as pious impracticality and sometimes as an assault on what they value and what values them. I am sure someone cooked, prepared the table, served the bread and wine and the rest of the food, washed the dishes and cleaned up afterward. The extent to which the gospel had set them free would be reflected in the extent to which all owned these responsibilities and mutually decided who would do what. They would surely also have known the experience of finding that the gospel could easily be banished from practicalities and the same old people left to do all the work. The story is not told to punish these Marthas, though it is often used that way. In fact it heads in the opposite direction. Martha’s traditional roles are now thrown open for all and embraced in the word. The one who speaks will, a later gospel tells us, also wash the disciples’ feet.
Epistle: Pentecost 9: 17 July Colossians 1:15-28