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Have You Revisited Mary and Martha?

On October 23, 2013

Have you revisited Mary and Martha lately (Luke 10:38–42)? You remember their house where Martha is “over busy” making preparations for Jesus’ arrival, and Mary ignores the obvious need to help her sister, preferring to listen at the feet of Jesus. In desperation, Martha appeals to Jesus, the male authority in the house, to get her sister’s priorities in line with the cultural expectations for women. Martha appears to be reprimanded by Jesus while Mary is vindicated. Many times, this story is interpreted as presenting one sister upheld at the expense of the other, preferring women who do not complain.

Mary and Martha’s story has traditionally been interpreted to honor Mary’s listening over Martha’s service. However, could the sisters have a new lesson to teach? Many new possibilities are uncovered in The New Perspective on Mary and Martha. Martha received Jesus and his gospel by utilizing her gift of hospitality by providing food and hospitality for the sake of Jesus and his work on earth. However, most importantly, she received Jesus as her savior. Both Martha and her sister Mary were known as “sitters at the feet,” and informed disciples. Martha was indeed burdened with many duties, but her worries were over issues much larger than her duties as a hostess that day. The questions often occur: “Why doesn’t Martha just talk to Mary herself? Why doesn’t Mary defend herself?” or “Why is Mary silent?”

Contrary to many interpretations of this passage, Martha is not necessarily in the kitchen, because the Greek text gives no indication of a meal being served, and Mary is not even in the house. Mary does not have a speaking part because Mary is not there! She is gone! This is the point: Martha claims to want her sister to come home because she needs help with her “much service.” The word used for “service” in Greek is diakonia, which is the same word often translated as the work of a deacon. Why does Martha implore Jesus, “Tell her therefore, that she may give me a hand?” Jesus, of course, knows where Mary is. She is following him by evangelizing in towns and villages across Galilee, as described in Luke 8:1–2. She may also very well be one of the seventy sent out in pairs to preach in the towns that Jesus intended to go (Luke 10:1). Indeed, Martha may want her sister home to help her with her duties as a deacon (diakonia), or maybe she just wants her sister home with her!

Martha is still the sister who needs an “attitude adjustment,” but now her worries are much more than getting a meal prepared on time. Her sister has heard the call to follow Jesus in the countryside among strangers and dangers. Jesus informs Martha that Mary has chosen “good,” and it will not be taken away from her (Luke 10:42). Martha’s weakness is that she wants her sister securely with her. Who cannot identify with wanting loved ones nearby? Luke 10:38–42 becomes a much bigger lesson about giving not only ourselves, but also allowing our loved ones to follow a different call of Jesus. It reinforces many lessons of Luke about new family ties, discipleship, and trust.

Why do we continue putting ourselves into “Mary” and “Martha” boxes? The Spirit may be calling us into a different direction. This text is not asking, “Are you a Martha” or “Are you a Mary?” The appropriate question is: “Are you a Jesus-follower?”

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