Mary AND Martha, by Mary Stromer Hanson

Screen Shot 2016-06-30 at 11.16.13 AMMary Stromer Hanson is a recent graduate of Denver Seminary with an MA in NT biblical studies. She is a longtime member of CBE and active in the Denver chapter. She is the author of The New Perspective on Mary and Martha: Do Not Preach Mary and Martha Again Until You Read This! and Bold Girls Speak: Girls of the Bible Come Alive both published by Wipf and Stock. Mary blogs regularly at Mary’s Sword.

Used with permission.

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:

  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 and teaching demonstrated that he valued practical service.
  4. 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!

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.

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