Mary and Martha continue to stir up heated dispute in the church, but their contribution to egalitarian arguments appears to have been wrung dry. I propose a new look at the sisters—a look that goes far beyond the tale of a “Mary” trying to fit into a “Martha” world.
The Old Interpretation
The primary takeaway from the traditional interpretation of Mary and Martha is the importance of putting “first things first.” In other words, crumbs under the sofa cushions are a sign of correct priorities. Jesus is said to be admonishing us to cut housekeeping corners for the sake of Bible study.
Let’s examine the usual discussion points. Do we really believe these sisters were too wimpy to settle their disagreements themselves? How would our interpretation of the story change if Martha had been doing work considered more crucial than what has historically been viewed as “women’s work”? Do our stereotypical attitudes towards women and their work skew our interpretation of this text? Does the traditional understanding of this passage fit with Jesus’ theology of service and the use of gifts? Is the traditional interpretation constructive for women?
Women’s Right and Obligation to Learn
Luke 10:38-42 is often referenced in defense of women’s right and obligation to learn. The old interpretation of Mary and Martha has indeed been a source of encouragement for generations of women who long to learn and study the Bible. Women are assured by this passage that their minds are important. We are more than our bodies.
That interpretation was comforting, until someone I knew “helpfully” pointed out that, “Yes, women can and should learn, but note that Mary never teaches!” Women were not allowed to teach. Never from the pulpit. Never with any authority. Any calling a woman felt to preach and teach was not valid.
Does Luke 10:38-42 really teach that women are only allowed to learn with men, but not teach? Does learning at the feet of Jesus stop there? According to the traditional narrative, Mary is passively learning—nothing more. Those who would curtail women’s leadership are quick to note that Mary does not teach men.
But Luke 8:21 clarifies this for us: “My mother and brother are those who hear God’s word, and do it.” This passage is much stronger than: Jesus affirmed Mary’s right to sit at his feet, same as the men. Jesus clearly states that those who hear his word have the obligation to act on what they learn. Clearly, Jesus intends that both men and women will study and then act on his words (teaching, preaching, etc.).
Historical "Women’s Work" and "Service”
One source of dissonance in the traditional story is that Jesus appears to short-change the work women have traditionally (historically) done—work that must be tended to if humans are to thrive—by chastising Martha.
Jesus himself performed the practical tasks of life liberally, and with overwhelming abundance as evidenced by his miracles. He provided fish and bread with leftovers; he himself enjoyed the bodily pleasures of good wine and food.
But in the passage, he seems to be admonishing Martha for going overboard in her practical service. But in Luke 10:5-6, Jesus prescribes hospitality for traveling disciples. It seems incongruous that Jesus would not welcome Martha’s diakonia (service). Diakonia is not assessed negatively in any other Lukan text. Can this story really be about Martha over-serving?
Martha is exonerated in John 12:2 where she is again serving. In John 12:26, “The one who serves me, serves the Father.” Jesus’ entire life was about service. He often placed himself in the role of a servant (e.g., Lk 22:27). One would expect to see Jesus continue those themes in this story: servanthood, putting others before self, and the value of hospitality.
In part 2 of this series, we will take a closer look at what Jesus is really saying about Martha’s service.
Mary and Martha at Jesus’ Feet
Much of our interpretation of this passage hangs on the assumption that Mary studies at the feet of Jesus. But what about Martha?
The KJV has the best English translation of Luke 10:39: “And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.” “At the feet” was a way of saying someone was a student of a master (Acts 22:3). A word often translated as “also” is omitted in most English versions.
With this variant considered, the sentence would read: “And this woman has a sister called Mary, who also (frequently) sat herself at the feet.” So we know that both of the sisters had already, before this day, been students of the Lord. From Luke 8:2, we know that women followed him in the country-side and he taught them the same as men—at his feet.
A New Interpretation
We have established that:
- Jesus affirmed Mary and Martha’s learning.
- Jesus intended for all “sitters at his feet” to act on his teachings.
- Jesus’ life and teaching demonstrated that he valued practical service.
- Martha studied at Jesus’ feet, just like Mary.
Now that we’ve covered these four points, we can reframe the story of Mary and Martha around a difference in gifts and calling between the sisters.
I propose an interpretation that not only affirms Mary’s right to learn, but more broadly illustrates Mary and Martha’s active callings in the church and world. Jesus places no limitations on women’s activities, but rather encourages them to pursue their callings. It is my hope that women will be empowered by Mary and Martha’s example—that women will learn, and then act upon that learning.
In Part 2 of this series, you will not be asked: “Are you a ‘Martha,’ or are you a ‘Mary’?” That question is superfluous and invalid. Both sisters are engaged in demanding activities far beyond the popular portrayals.
Rather, you will see that Martha is not reprimanded because of overzealous kitchen work, nor is Mary restricted to learning only. Both sisters are pursuing their God-given callings, and no choice between being a “Mary” or “Martha” is necessary!