In previous posts, we saw that, for Paul, discipleship to Christ is more fundamental than marital status, gender identity, or family relationships. In the book of Luke, we are given a glimpse of Jesus’s view of marriage, singleness, and family as well. In Luke 10 (all biblical references are to the NIV) we read:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself. Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10: 38–42)
New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, explains this passage as follows:
Most of us grew up with the line that Martha was the active type and Mary the passive or contemplative type, and that Jesus is simply affirming the importance of both and even the priority of devotion to him. That devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story, but far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East, and many other parts of the world to this day, would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This was probably what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so. She is “sitting at his feet”; a phrase that doesn’t mean what it would mean today, the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher.
As is clear from the use of the phrase elsewhere in the New Testament . . . to sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that very practical world you wouldn’t do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself. (“The Biblical Basis for Women in Ministry,” Priscilla Papers 20.4 : 7)
In fact, when we look at Jesus’s ministry, we see that he was constantly surrounded by women disciples. Sure, they were not part of his inner twelve, but that doesn’t diminish their importance to his ministry. In Luke 8:3, for example, we read that a number of women “were helping to support [Jesus and the disciples] out of their own means.” These wealthy business women were not derided by Jesus for not staying in the home. Instead, Jesus allowed them to contribute their gifts to his ministry.
The lesson for women is clear: whether you are single, dating, married, a mother, divorced, or widowed, your worth and value to the body of Christ is not limited to your ability to find a husband, have a happy marriage, to have children, or to keep up a house. You are valuable as the individual God made you to be, and your individual gifts are vital to the life of the church, whatever those gifts may be.
Similarly for men: whether you are single, dating, married, a father, divorced, or a widower, your worth and value to the body of Christ is not limited to your ability to find a wife, have a happy marriage, to make babies, or to provide for a family. You are valuable as the individual God made you to be, and your individual gifts are vital to the life of the church, whatever those gifts may be.
In contrast to our church culture’s idolization of marriage and family, Jesus radically relativizes the importance of one’s marital status or family role in relation to discipleship. In Luke 14 Jesus states:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26–27)
Jesus is teaching that discipleship to him requires a radical reorientation of perspective regarding your family relations. If you are not willing to suffer and even to allow your family to suffer for the sake of Christ, then you are not his disciple.
Earlier in that same chapter Jesus instructs his disciples:
“When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:12–14)
In other words, even our social priorities must be restructured when we commit to Christ. Instead of showing favoritism toward our families, we favor those who will never have the opportunity to repay us.
Jesus confirms this view of discipleship in his own ministry. When his family comes to visit him and Jesus is told that his “mother and brothers” are there, Jesus responds: “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). This new family identity is poignantly illustrated by Jesus on the cross, when he addresses his mother, Mary, and his beloved disciple, John, saying to Mary, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27). Jesus wasn’t merely looking out for the well-being of his widowed mother, but he was declaring a truth about the fundamental identity of the church. The church is not an institution that requires family ties for membership and care. In fact, the church does not require families to maintain its existence. Entrance into the church is not by birth after all, but by conversion.