What is the Better Part?

marthaandmary-1The story of Martha and Mary is like an old friend. As women, sometimes we feel like Martha and sometimes Mary. What is there to tease from this periscope that hasn’t been said again and again?

I’m a liberation theology student and have read a fair number of learned tombs on the subject. One that I never got around to is the perhaps “bible” for women’s liberation theology, In Memory of Her, the groundbreaking work by Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Dr. Fiorenza is no doubt the most famous of all women in the work of retrieving women’s voice in the early church.

I thought it might be useful to use that lens of women’s liberation theology to look at the story and see what insights one might gain.

As far as we know, all the books of the bible were written by men, men who lived in a time and place in which patriarchy was the norm. Roles were highly gendered, and sexes were often segregated in the home and in the synagogue. Women were lumped with children in their general irrelevancy in decision-making and in leadership.

Of course the role of Martha was the norm in the Palestine of Jesus’ time. Women were servers of men. They were in charge of the hearth. We see this in the initial story from Genesis wherein the strangers visit Abraham. The code of hospitality requires Abraham to make strangers comfortable, to feed and lodge them as needed. Note that Abraham doesn’t do the work himself, he orders his servant to slay the steer and prepare the meat while he tells Sarah to get busy making the bread. The man, Abraham of course entertains the guests while others do the work of hospitality.

Similarly Martha gets about the business of preparing food for Jesus and those of his followers who have arrived. Such a large entourage, no doubt there was much to be done. But Luke introduces something new here, Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. Luke’s readers or listeners surely would have seen nothing untoward in the Martha end of things, but they must have been taken aback by Mary’s unusual behavior.

Women in that time did not eat with men, and they surely didn’t sit in on men’s conversations. So Mary’s actions surely got everyone’s attention when the story was first heard. Martha’s actions are what would be expected as well. She is put out by having to do all the work herself.

Martha seeks assistance from a male in getting Mary back to her business of helping in the kitchen. This again might be the norm  since it would have been unusual for women to live alone (we believe they had a brother Lazarus  from the Gospel of John. Although John was written well after Luke’s account and it is never a good idea to conflate Gospels to “fill in the blanks”, it would be more likely that the women did not live alone than not). Yet Martha seeks out Jesus rather than the male of the household to make her complaints.

Jesus here is suggesting, that women should be part of the preaching and teaching diakonia. It was service of a different kind. Jesus, through Luke, announces that in this area, his followers are to be different as well. Women were not simply in the background, ducking in and out discretely as they tended to the food and drink of those men who were about the business of spreading the gospel. Women were to learn too, and thus to be ministers of the Word.

Luke’s framing of the story suggests that the early communities were conflicted on this issue of women serving in teaching, preaching and leadership. And Luke seems to come down kind of in the middle.

What is disturbing in the text is the manufactured fight between women. Surely diakonia involved  serving at table (eucharist), listening to the Word (and resultant preaching) and leadership within the community (Martha welcomes Jesus to her home). Yet Luke manages to split the combined diaconate and make Martha’s “part” of it lesser and somewhat derogatory by reference to the “better part” of Mary’s service. This must have echoed the fight going on within the church itself a the time of Luke’s writing.

As well, Luke makes Mary’s service a “listening” and inactive service. While to sit around at the feet of the rabbi was a full-interchange of back and forth between teacher and disciple, we see none of that in Luke. Again, even though the listening is more important that the diaconate of table service, it has been reduced to being “preached to” rather than to be educated to preach.

Thus we get the watered down vision that learning the word of God is more important than the normal business of everyday life. This is what is often preached in the pulpits of our churches. This is, I would suggest, superficial and really a misunderstanding of what is going on here. Luke has served to deflate the argument going on about what is “woman’s place” by turning the entire story to one that reflects nothing about the role of women at all, but merely suggests that listening to the word of God is always preferable to doing everyday things. In doing so, we miss the real and very shocking teaching that Jesus actually expressed.

Amen.

 

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Jul 21, 2013 @ 13:06:27

    Sherry, you make many excellent–and vital–points here. Today our pastor reminded us that the conversation between Martha and Jesus is not gender-based at all. She is clearly a disciple, manifested in her use of the honorific “Lord,” to address Jesus. And His open reply in dialogue with her denotes His respect for her as a person. As Jesus typically taught in a quasi-Socratic fashion that allowed for questions and discussion, it also safe to assume that Mary’s role was far from passive or subservient. She is no eavesdropper or hanger-on here. She’s actively engaged, as a disciple seeking knowledge from the Master.

    Without accounting for this defiance of cultural gender prejudice, we can’t begin to tap into the dynamic and meaning of this story. And even though Luke tends to underplay the “scandal” of this episode, it’s writ large in the exchanges, particularly in the respect Jesus shows to Martha and Mary. Only then can the traditional teaching of this story–work-life balance, if you will–be fully understood, because in the case of both women, Jesus recognizes them not for their traditional roles, but for their desires, motives, and, yes, frustrations. (For surely Mary was not without conflict about daring to sit at Jesus’s feet while her sister worked in the kitchen–and vice versa.)

    We just have to keep shaving away at the thick layers of sexism and patriarchy that have annealed themselves to our inadequate readings of what the Spirit would have us see! Freeing Martha and Mary enables us to free other women and ethnicities and orientations of the burdens we’ve laded on them over the centuries–not only the people in Scripture, but also the people we live among!

    Wonderful as always–refreshing, bold, and wise!

    Blessings always,
    Tim

    Reply

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