While fulfilling recent Bible teaching responsibilities in Australia (for the Anglicans), in Canada (for the Armenians) and in Latvia (for the Lutherans), I found the same topic under intense discussion—the place of women in the ministry of the church. As American Presbyterians we have crossed bridges that the Australians, the Armenians and the Latvians are currently approaching. This text speaks to churches at both ends of those particular bridges. It is perhaps especially significant for us to look anew at this story as we remember our Reformation heritage.
This intensely personal account speaks not solely to the issue of men and women together at the feet of Jesus, but also addresses the timeless question of the relationship between “word” and “service” (diakonia).
As has often been observed, the earlier dialogue between Jesus and the lawyer (Lk 10:25-27) presents the dual command to love God and the neighbor. The parable of the Good Samaritan then follows and sets forth a standard for loving the neighbor. Next, the story of Mary and Martha demonstrates how to love the Lord.
The scene falls naturally into two halves. The first is the setting. The second is an “acted parable” in the form of a dialogue. In rabbinic terms the first is the nimshal (the frame of reference necessary for understanding). The second is the mashal (the parable itself). In this “acted parable” Jesus surfaces again as an astute prophetic-style theologian who creates rich meaning out of the earthy fabric of daily life.
First the setting:
- Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house.
- And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.
- But Martha was distracted with much serving (diakonia).
Jesus is traveling with his disciples. Martha is clearly the head of the house where the group stops. It is “her house.” Amazingly, a first century rabbi (Jesus) is willing to be entertained, with his disciples, in a home headed by a woman. The Mishnah reads,
Jose b. Johanan of Jerusalem said: Let thy house be opened wide and let the needy be members of thy household; and talk not much with womankind. They said this of a man’s own wife: how much more of his fellow’s wife! Hence the Sages have said: He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna (M. Aboth, 1.5, Danby 446).
By spending the night under Martha’s roof, Jesus deliberately chooses to “talk much with women,” even unmarried women! The verb “receive” in the text means “to receive as a guest.” This same word (hupodekhomai) appears in Luke 19:6 where Zacchaeus receives Jesus as an overnight guest in his home.
Mary’s response to a rabbi entering her home (with his disciples) is to join them! She “sat at the Lord’s feet.” This same idiom identifies Paul as a disciple of Gamaliel (cf. Acts 22:3). The Mishnah reads,
Jose b. Joezer of Zeredah said: Let thy house be a meeting-house for the Sages and sit amid the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst (M. Aboth, 1.4, Danby, 446).
Mary is doing precisely that; a fact that is critical for a proper understanding of the passage. Mary has become (or becomes) a disciple of Jesus. Martha is naturally busy with the evening meal. At the same time she is upset and worried.
Luke 8:1-3 refers to women traveling from village to village with Jesus and the twelve. Such activity was (and is) unheard of in the socially conservative Middle East. Today, if university students anywhere in the region travel to a seminar, a play or a picnic, the girls must be taken home for the night or housed with relatives. The reader of Luke’s Gospel is amazed by Luke 8:1-3 but is also prepared through it for this story. Martha’s concern comes as no surprise to the reader.
We are not told that Martha is busy or overburdened with much serving (diakonia). Rather she is distracted. Being distracted means one is led from something by something. The assumption of the text is that Martha is distracted from the teachings of Jesus by her “much serving.”
J. Fitzmyer observes “diakonia (serving) that bypasses the Word is one that will never have lasting character” (Luke, II, 892). This idea has the profoundest significance for Christian ministry in any age. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4:17-18 sets forth a package which includes: proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion. A critical part of this threefold task is keeping the package intact. Here a similar package has come apart. Martha is busy with serving (diakonia) which distracts her from Jesus’ teaching. For Jesus, diakonia that neglects his word is not pleasing. Martha does not yet understand this. Don’t all guests yearn to be properly entertained?
The setting (nimshal) with its tensions is clear. The text then offers the mashal, the “acted parable.”
- And she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me.”
Most traditional cultures provide marvelous ways of saying one thing and meaning another. Middle Eastern culture is no exception. The communication that takes place is crystal clear— to the cultural insider! Martha is really saying,
“The other rabbis don’t have women disciples! What’s happening under my nose is outrageous and unprecedented! What will the neighbors think and what will the local rabbis say? Imagine—my sister—a disciple of a rabbi! If she continues she will be involved in daily interaction with young unmarried men! Who will marry the poor girl after this? Her reputation will be ruined! She’ll listen to you Jesus! You must tell her that her place is here in the kitchen with me!”
The question is not, “I need help to serve the evening meal.” The issues at stake are more serious and far-reaching.
- But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion which shall not be taken away from her.”
Jesus’ reply is pointed and at the same time deeply pastoral. He knows the list of jumbled ideas racing through Martha’s troubled mind. Yet he does not debate them. He must have fully understood how radical it was for him, in that society, to include women among his disciples. Surely he had faced these questions before. Here he refers to the long list indirectly and dismisses all of it on the basis of a greater responsibility—that of listening to this word.
The phrase “one thing is needed” means:
“We do not need one more plate of food on the table tonight. You have already prepared enough food for an army. Yes, Mary could help you load the table with yet another tasty dish. But something of a quite different nature is lacking. What is needed is for you to give the same careful attention to what I have to say that your sister is already giving to my words. Yes, you do need her help—she can help you see that a good disciple pleases me far more than a good meal! Mary illuminates the way to a radical re-formation of priorities that this house, under your leadership, needs to undergo.”
The phrase, “good portion,” can mean a portion of food. Following this nuance, Jesus is saying, “I am serving the banquet, not you, Martha, and your sister has selected the choice morsel and is eating it.” In any culture known to me, when a diner chooses food to eat it is unthinkable that someone else should take it away from her/him. Mary has chosen “the good portion.” She has decided to listen to the teachings of Jesus. He will not allow anyone to take her selection away from her— not even her older sister! In short, Jesus uncompromisingly defends the right of women to be taken seriously as full participants in his band of disciples.
Is this not a double reformation that needs to be emulated from Latvia to North America to Australia and at all points in between? In this text word and service are profoundly interrelated and at the same time men and women sit together as equals at the feet of the same Lord.
This article first appeared in The Presbyterian Outlook, October 26, 1998, and is reprinted by permission.