This sermon was preached at St Lydia’s Dinner Church on Sunday Feb. 17 and Monday Feb. 18, 2018
Revisiting Martha and Mary
Luke 10:38 – 42: Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
This scripture may be familiar. It shares the story of Mary, Martha and Jesus. A traditional interpretation of this story tells the reader that Martha, the domestic diva who is waiting on Jesus, chastises her sister Mary by telling Jesus he has to tell Mary to help her. Jesus retorts that Martha is worrying about things which are unimportant; Mary has made the better choice.
Who are you, Martha, to worry about food prep and dishes when there are lessons to learn at the feet of Jesus?
I chose to preach from this scripture because I heard in it a lesson about how Jesus treated the women in his life. I felt that, in this #metoo moment, we needed to look at Jesus’ actual interactions with women to develop a response that is compassionate and authentically Christian.
Today St. Lydia’s begins a series of sermons inspired by the #metoo movement. In the last several months, women and men around the country have shared their stories of harassment and violence using the #metoo hashtag.
One day last year, I took to Facebook and posted a status expressing my own frustration at the Church’s lack of response to the avalanche of allegations tumbling from Hollywood sets, the corridors of Congress and the White House, the quiet offices where night crews clean, and the hot fields where farm workers harvest. Women across the country were calling out for healing and the church felt eerily silent. This is an issue of justice, of equality. Churches were standing up against the hate and anger sweeping our country, issuing statements on immigration, on white supremacy, on economic injustice.
Where was the church’s voice on this?
This Facebook post prompted fellow congregant Angela Morris to reach out and let me know that my post impacted her, and asked if I would consider preaching on this issue. That blossomed into the series of conversations St. Lydia’s will be having this week and for the next five weeks as we observe Lent.
Last Wednesday, St. Lydia’s joined with churches around the world to mark the beginning of Lent. This is a season of the church year that calls people to look at their lives and consider whether they are responding fully to God’s call. As part of this reflection, during Lent, St. Lydia’s takes on the discipline of confession.
This season, you will hear the voices of several St. Lydia’s women try to weave together a tapestry of understanding, to present stories and experiences that point towards Jesus and how his example calls us to respond. Together, we will also reflect on how we may unwittingly perpetuate the conditions of patriarchy which led to the need for this movement, and then turn, and do better.
Maybe our first confession needs to be about Martha and Mary.
I have a mother who one could say is firmly on the Mary side of the Martha-Mary dichotomy. She is rarely in the kitchen preparing meals when company is over; she’d rather cater so as to not miss any of the action, and encourages a casual, potluck approach. She lives a life that challenges conceptions about a woman’s place: an ordained deacon, she left the Roman Catholic Church when my brother was a baby. In the book of advice my bridesmaids passed around at my bridal shower she wrote: “a clean house is a sign of a life not lived.” Clearly, a Mary.
My grandmother, her mother-in-law, was firmly a Martha. She taught me sewing, how to make bookmarks from plastic canvas, the importance of perfectly filed nails, and how to set a well-appointed table. She baked, she cooked, and her home was always impeccably clean. Towards the end of her life she complained that her home health aide couldn’t vacuum without leaving tracks behind in the wall-to-wall carpeting.
She had standards. Martha, all the way.
These two women are, we are traditionally told, who we need to choose between.
Are you a Martha?
Or a Mary?
Or are you sometimes one or the other?
And what does Jesus have against Martha anyway?
What if I told you, “nothing”?
That maybe Martha is suffering from the same linguistic assumptions that punish modern women for being aggressive, or loud, or strong?
That maybe we got Martha and Mary all wrong?
OK, so here is where I am going to get a little granular and take a close look at language. Because sometimes what a writer writes is different than what a reader reads. What we hear is always shaped by context.
So first: where is this story in the Bible and who are the characters?
This story is part of the Gospel according to Luke, one of the four books in the Bible that tells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The author of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the early church immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Remember this: it’s important later.
Mary and Martha are sisters, and have a brother named Lazarus. They live in Bethany, outside of Jerusalem. In another Gospel, the Gospel according to John, we hear more of the close relationship between Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In John, Jesus comes to Bethany to respond to the sisters’ call for help when Lazarus falls ill and dies. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. These siblings are Jesus’ friends and disciples. He loves them and they love him.
This is important too.
Let’s dive, then, into this story from Luke.
Luke 10:40 says: “Martha was distracted with much serving.” Feminist theologian Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza casts doubt on a key component of the traditional interpretation of this text. Fiorenza focuses on the Greek word for “serve”, diakonia. This word is the origin of the word “deacon.” While this word could be interpreted as serving food, this is not how the word must be interpreted. Assuming that Martha must have been serving food says more about what we hear as listeners than what Martha was actually doing.
Might Martha instead be burned out from her work as a deacon? Could her ministry in Bethany be wearing her out? Let’s dig a little bit deeper.
Biblical scholar Mary Stromer Hanson has delved deeply into the language of this passage, and I highlight two of her concerns with the traditional interpretation here. First: many translations of this passage leave out a key word: “also”. As in “Mary, who also sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.” Does this mean Martha did too? And if our translation of diakonia was off, what else are we missing here?
In the Book of Acts, Paul, one of Christianity’s earliest and most prolific writers and missionaries, describes himself in his pre-conversion life as one who sat at the feet of Gamaliel. An important detail of Paul’s life is that, before he converted to Christianity, he was not only Jewish, but persecuted followers of Jesus. Gamaliel trained Paul; you could say that, before Paul became a Christian, he was Gamaliel’s disciple. Now remember: Luke wrote the book of Acts. Could this phrase, “sit at the feet of,” used in two places by the same author, have a non-literal meaning?
Traditionally, the image of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus conjures up a different scene than Paul at the feet of Gamaliel.
Google it. You’ll see what I mean. Paul, at the feet of Gamaliel, is hard at work as a scholar. Mary, at the feet of Jesus, looks like a love-sick teenager. She doesn’t even have a notebook!
Hanson suggests that this phrase, “to sit at the feet of,” is an idiom referring to one who follows, one who is a disciple. In this rendering, Mary and Martha are disciples of Jesus, on equal footing with each other, and partners in his work on earth.
Are you with me so far? OK. Let’s take another step away from the usual scene.
What if Mary is not even there?
What if it’s just Martha and Jesus?
A second point from Hanson is that there is no direct evidence in the text that Mary is present.
She never actually speaks.
Now imagine a different scene. Martha is worn out from her work as a disciple in Bethany. Jesus arrives and she greets him…and launches right into the complaints. Mary is so busy with what Jesus has her doing that Martha is struggling to get all her ministry done herself. She asks Jesus to redeploy the resources he has in Bethany: assign Mary to me!
Let’s listen to a different translation of this scripture, one Hanson proposes:
As they were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha received him. She had a sister called Mary, who also was one who sat at the Lord’s feet, always listening to his words. But Martha was constantly torn apart concerning much ministry. She suddenly approached him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister regularly leaves me to minister alone? Tell her therefore that she may give me a hand.”
But the Lord answered her saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and agitated concerning much, but only one thing is needed: For Mary has chosen good and it will not be taken away from her.”
Jesus tells Martha not that Mary’s choice is better, but that it is her calling. Martha’s got to re-focus. Mary has her ministry, and Martha’s got hers. These ministries are both good; each is suited to the woman who carries them out. Each woman needs to be free to live into her call.
What is not abundantly clear is what ministry Mary and Martha are engaged in. Some scholarship suggests Martha is engaged in some sort of home-based ministry, something along the lines of a house church, while Mary is more of an itinerant missionary, out in the world sharing the message of Jesus. This could be an additional source of distress for Martha: she loves her sister and worries for her safety as she engages in this outwardly-focused ministry.
So what does this mean for #metoo? What does this little corner of the tapestry tell us today?
First: Jesus was a good boss! He knew from his relationship with Mary and Martha what Martha needed to hear to get going again. I imagine his words not like a reproach, but as a soothing response – and I would like to imagine the conversation continuing.
Secondly: everyone gets burned out at work. We all need to be able to bring our concerns to our bosses and get support – not a quid pro quo proposition.
Finally: women’s work is valuable, valued, and varied. There is no one way for women to live and move in this world: each of us has a call to answer. You do not have to choose between Martha and Mary. You only have to choose Jesus, and then choose you.
At St. Lydia’s this season we will take time after the sermon to reflect and confess. What do you feel moved to confess?
Here’s a question to consider: how has your language been shaped by perceptions of gender, or your perceptions of gender shaped your language?
Kirstin Swanson lives and works in Staten Island, NY. Sometimes you’ll find her posting to her blog, writing for d365, or helping community organizations find funding. A regular Waffle Church attendee at St. Lydia’s, she’s recently begun serving as a song leader at Dinner Church. She has worshiped and served in lay leadership in Episcopal churches in the New York City area, and is blessed to share her home with her husband and two young children.
A New View of Mary and Martha: https://eewc.com/new-view-mary-martha/
Mary of Bethany: Her Leadership Uncovered:
What was Martha Doing? Diakonia in Luke 10:38-42