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Published Date: June 29, 2016

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Reinterpreting Mary and Martha: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we established four points:

  1. Jesus affirmed Mary and Martha’s learning.
  2. Jesus intended for all “sitters at his feet” to act on his teachings.
  3. Jesus’ life demonstrated that he valued practical service.
  4. Martha studied at Jesus’ feet, just like Mary.

With these points in mind, I’d like to reframe the story around Mary and Martha’s individual callings, and how Jesus directed and nurtured those callings.

Mary and Martha have been my Bible story companions since childhood. My mother used to read their story from The Child’s Garden of Bible Stories. In the book, Mary was pictured sitting sweetly at Jesus’ feet, while Martha, broom in hand, angrily looked on from the kitchen. It was clear to me that Mary got it right and Martha got it wrong. My name is Mary, so as a five year-old, I was proud to share my name with the sister who “got it right.”  

When I was older, I recognized two fundamental flaws in my childish thinking: that I had to choose between the two women’s callings and that one calling was less important than the other. 

Conflict between Learning and Practical Service

The years flew by and I soon had a young family. My days overflowed with “Martha” activities, so I served in practical ways while my Bible gathered dust. I also resigned from pursuing my interest in formal Bible study.

I was pulled in two directions: Jesus seemed to prefer Mary’s activities over Martha’s, but I had very necessary adult obligations.

These thoughts simmered on the back burner for a few decades, until I could finally attend seminary. When a pastor friend and mentor preached a series of sermons on Luke 10:38-42, my long-dormant thoughts about this topic were revived. I naturally chose my old friends, Mary and Martha, for my thesis topic. I knew that the traditional interpretation of the passage was harmful to women, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it.

Setting the Stage

In verse 10:38, Jesus is traveling with an unidentified plural group that could have included women. By the last half of vs. 38, the plural verb has morphed into a singular verb with Jesus as the subject. The text continues, “A certain woman received him.” In many translations “into her/a house” is added. The earliest parchments do not include any mention of a house, and that phrase is most likely a later addition. She “received him” could also mean she received the gospel message, whether or not she took him into her house. So the story likely took place in a very different setting than we typically imagine. (No crowd of disciples descending on Martha expecting a home-cooked meal.)

Sisterly conflict

Despite traditional depictions of the sisters’ relationship, Mary and Martha are not cranky sisters in a spat. Both of them face a dilemma far beyond the choice between ministry and kitchen work.

Martha’s Service

Verse 10:40 describes Martha as distracted because of diakonia or “service.” Diakonia is a word traditionally translated as “work of a deacon or minister”—if it refers to a man’s activity. Though this is the same word used in Rom. 16:1, it is often translated as “helper” as it refers to Phoebe’s work.  

There has been a lot of study on the use of diakonia in the Bible. It can include many different kinds of service. It certainly does not only refer to what was historically “women’s work.” In fact, there is no mention of meal preparation or household tasks anywhere in the text! Martha’s activity is not specific; she is exhausted over some unnamed diakonia, which could be anything that a devoted believer would do in first-century Jewish context.

Mary’s Mission

Have you ever wondered why Mary does not speak in this passage? Mary does not speak, because Mary is not there! In the passage, Martha and Jesus discuss Mary, but the subject of their conversation never chimes in.

In verse 40, an indeterminate amount of time has passed. Martha approaches Jesus with a question, “Do you not care that my sister regularly leaves me to minister alone? Tell her therefore that she may give me a hand.” We can surmise that Martha wants Jesus to relay to Mary that she needs help with her many unnamed diakonia obligations.

An imperfect verb indicates this is more than a one-time event. It would also seem that Martha is asking Jesus to “tell” Mary because Martha does not know where Mary is, but Jesus knows her location. It is possible that Mary is following Jesus throughout Galilee as a disciple.

Jesus answers Martha, “Mary has chosen agatha.” This word does not have to be translated as “better or best.” It can simply mean “good.” Jesus is saying that Mary has chosen “good” and he is not going to call Mary away from her activity to go back to the village to help Martha. In this moment, Jesus confirms the validity of Mary’s choice.

Two Sisters, Two Callings

If we look a little deeper, the familiar verses of Mary and Martha begin to teach new lessons. Luke 10:38-42 is an endorsement of women in mission or ministry away from home. But, at the same time, Jesus does not denigrate the in-village discipleship of Martha. Jesus defends Mary’s calling, but does not dismiss Martha’s call to practical service.

Many women have struggled to balance a calling to formal ministry with a desire to serve practically in their communities. But God doesn’t make us choose and neither does the story of Mary and Martha. We may enjoy teaching and preaching or we may enjoy hands-on ministry. Or we can do both. Jesus gives women room to creatively use their gifts and pursue their callings.

Mary and Martha are two sisters living out two different callings according to their abilities and circumstances. Martha is still the sister that needs to rearrange her thinking, but for the much larger purpose of allowing her sister to pursue her discipleship away from home. Whether evangelizing to new converts, or serving practically in our communities, both calls are demanding and require the requisite study “at the feet” of Jesus.

Mary Stromer Hanson’s book on this subject, The New Perspective on Mary and Martha, can be purchased in CBE’s online bookstore

This is a forum for conversation and learning. Please keep dialogue constructive and engage respectfully with those who have different perspectives. We reserve the right to edit or delete comments that are offensive, off-topic, or attacking. We also encourage you to share our articles on Facebook and Twitter. We need your help to spread the message of gender equality.