Revisiting Mary and Martha on International Women’s Day

This picture has a caption!

A few years ago, a friend of mine bought a car I had never seen before. I thought it was an unusual and interesting car. I reasoned that probably only a few people owned it since I had never seen it before. But after that I began to see it everywhere. I was living in LA at the time and wherever I was in that huge sprawling city, I would see that car in all different colors.

It seems that once we have eyes to see something, we can’t un-see it. Our awareness has been awakened and there’s no going back.

That’s the way it was for me when I began to focus on women’s stories in the Bible and recognize how truly radical Jesus’ interactions with women are.

Our culture is so different from the ones described in the Old and New Testaments, that it can be easy to miss the scandal in Jesus’ encounters with women. Jesus came into a world where women were less than second class citizens--they were the property of men: first of their fathers and then of their husbands. And because they were property, they were not regarded as image-bearers of God.

You may remember in the Hebrew Scriptures how Jacob was tricked into marrying Leah. He was supposed to marry her sister Rachel. But Leah and Rachel’s father wanted more years of work from Jacob and used his daughters, who were his property like his goats and fields, to get what he wanted. There was no regard for Leah or Rachel’s feelings or concern for their well being, just as there wouldn’t be if he were trading oxen or a flock of sheep.

Jesus inaugurates a new day

That’s the way it was for most women all the way to the first century when Jesus arrived on the scene. Jesus inaugurated a new day--one in which men and women were regarded as reflecting the image of their creator, and he revealed this radical inclusion in the way he engaged women in his ministry.

I can think of no other story where this is more evident than in the one where Jesus meets at the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany in Luke 10:38-42:

Now as they went on their way, he [Jesus] 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.”

I have heard from many wise and gifted preachers and Bible study leaders that this story is about the active vs. the contemplative life. That’s it’s about a woman whose preoccupied with housework while her sister has her “quiet time” with Jesus in a contemplative conversation, and Jesus affirms the quiet time over the housework.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that those readings are wrong, but that there other dynamics at work that we often miss because of the cultural differences between our world and the first century world.

Jesus elevated the view of women in his time and lifted the restrictions placed upon them solely because of their gender

Now there are a few things you may not know:  Mary is not having a quiet time at Jesus’ feet. Then as now the phrase “to sit at the feet of” meant to be a student of--she is a disciple of Jesus and is learning from him just as his male disciples are. This is a significant fact because during Jesus’ time women were forbidden to touch the Hebrew Scriptures, let alone read or study them. This is contrary to all social and religious regulations of the time. The gospel writer is telling us that Mary was Jesus’ student and disciple, just like the other 12 men in the room who traveled with him. He has invited Mary into a space that was previously forbidden for women.

Now let’s talk about Martha: the Greek word used to describe Martha’s “many tasks” is diakonia, the word from which we derive the term deacon. So the work that Martha is doing is probably not housework but the work of that a deacon of her worshipping community might have done--this work might include hospitality but is not limited to that duty alone. Deacons are ministers of service--they may oversee members, church property, finances, and serving and giving to the poor. We can’t know exactly the duties Martha performed because the text doesn’t give us those details. But the meaning of diakonia certainly calls into question traditional understandings of this story.

We know from John in his Gospel that Mary and Martha are loved by Christ (11:5). Martha confesses that Jesus is the Messiah just as Peter does (John 11:27). Through Mary’s evangelism, many came to believe in Jesus (John 11:45). And they were apostolic figures in the earliest Christian communities (Luke 10:38-42).

Reinterpreting Mary and Martha’s encounter with Jesus

So reading this story with a fuller understanding of the cultural context and the cross-references, one could read it this way:

The rabbi Jesus was received in the home of one his apostles named Martha, who also fulfilled the duties of a deacon in the worshipping community in Bethany. On this day, her sister Mary sat at the feet of Jesus like his male disciples to study and learn from him. Martha asked the rabbi to have his student Mary help with her own duties, but the rabbi responded that studying was just as important as serving and affirmed Mary’s choice.

Have you ever heard the story of Mary and Martha taught this way? Me neither! The way that Jesus interacted with Mary and Martha defied all social and cultural expectations of his day.

And why does it matter that we read it this way in addition to the other interpretations we’ve heard?

It matters because Jesus elevated the view of women in his time and lifted the restrictions placed upon them solely because of their gender. Jesus cared for women, talked with them, discipled them, and valued them as human beings. Jesus entrusted women with his ministry and mission.

One of the reasons International Women’s Day is celebrated is because in so many parts of the world and even here in our own country, the lives of women are not valued. Women are still vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, violence, and discrimination.

Jesus says in John 10:10-- “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

But in many places around the world, women are prevented from living the abundant life Jesus came to give us.

Value for women as God’s image bearers is the central point of International Women’s Day. It seeks to highlight the accomplishments of women and their history; to emphasize the vulnerabilities of women across the globe; and to commit to do the work needed to achieve gender equality everywhere.

For reflection:

As you think about the women in your life, how can you show value to them as Jesus did?

How can you empower them to go where they have been forbidden to go by cultural norms and ideas?

And how can you come alongside them to support their callings and vocations?

Is it possible that something has to change in you so that you can see women as Jesus does?


When Life and Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference, Carolyn Custis James

A Lily Among the Thorns: Imagining a New Christian Sexuality, Miguel de la Torre

New Bible Commentary, eds. Gordon Wenham, J. Alex Motyer, Donald Carson, R.T. France

Karen GonzalezComment