Over the years, Martha from Luke 10:38-42 has come to be treated with a sort of condescension. A tension seems to have surrounded Martha and how she is interpreted. Many years ago a book was written encouraging readers to “Have a Mary Heart in a Martha World”. I did not read it (so perhaps I am ignorantly misjudging), but the title alone seems to lean toward a dismissiveness of Martha or pits the sisters’ spirituality against one another. I recently asked a minister for his thoughts on Martha; he commented she just thought she was better than Mary.
Such interpretations have not only done Martha an injustice, but have created within the Church an occasional Gnostic-like tendency to cast chores, tasks, or projects in an unspiritual light as work that gets in God’s way. I have known many Christian women who are very much like how Martha is depicted in the text—hospitable, generous, hardworking, multitasking, and a bit bossy. You likely know them, too. They are your mothers and sisters, wives and daughters, grandmothers and aunts. They energetically bounce from the laundry to vacuuming to cooking dinner to washing dishes to jumping large Lego-set buildings in a single bound. And do they occasionally raise voice to make us get with the program? They most certainly and, I daresay, rightfully do. If my Mom tells me to help her take the turkey out of the oven or to set the table, I don’t tell her to chill out. It therefore seems antithetical to Christian living to suggest that serving Jesus and his followers, even with a bit of a bite, is somehow bad behavior.
What if, however, Martha’s service or even snappiness had little to do with what is happening here? What if, rather, Jesus’ response concerned what Martha was not yet experiencing?
It should be noted that neither the text, nor Jesus actually condemns her tasks, which would have included preparing food and accommodations for guests. In fact, Martha’s actions are appropriately normal for the role society had placed on her. Here, as through history, women prided and distinguished themselves by keeping and offering the home as a haven for their families and guests. By recognizing Jesus’ prominence, inviting him and the disciples into her home, and providing them with food, shelter, and a preaching platform, Martha is executing her role with an excellence any Jew would praise. In her meticulousness, however, she was unaware of or distracted from how the reality of her role is expanding right in her home.
The boundary lines were clearly labeled by years of tradition. Surely Mary knew her role in society, that she was to prepare and provide. Yet here Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Surely Jesus also knew the rules, that when the men assembled to listen to rabbis, the women were to remain in separate locations. Yet here he teaches without sending her away.
One could see this as just another one of Jesus’ social faux pas. Or, considering his mission to proclaim and ordain the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ actions could also be understood as the welcoming of women into a fellowship with himself that was equal to that of the men. As Mary is blessedly tuning into this new kingdom reality, however, Martha is busy carrying out her duty, all the while noticing her sister is not. “Doesn’t she know her place in this world? What is more, the rabbi is not redirecting her back to her place.” Of course she raised an objection; there’s a way of life and duty to safeguard.
Notice the numerical contrast Jesus draws in his response. He describes Martha as distracted by “many things”. He then adds “there is need of only one thing”.
The “many things” really aren’t the problem. On any day, Martha and Mary would have had “many things” to tend. What puts these tasks out of place on this day, however, is the king in the living room proclaiming the good news that is redefining the reality of everyone and the roles they play in God’s kingdom. Martha doesn’t have to give up her tasks, and Jesus doesn’t want her to. But he does want her to understand that the margins in which society has framed her role are expanding in light of the kingdom reality being learned in her living room. To understand this, Jesus wants her there with him and the other kingdom citizens. In this sense, Jesus’ words to her could be seen as an invitation to enter into what Mary had already joined.
If she did, she might begin to gain the sense that in Christ “there is no longer male or female”. She might also begin to see the hospitality and generosity she showed and shared would soon characterize Jesus’ early church body. Perhaps afterward, her, Mary, and even the disciples and Jesus would all pitch in with the tasks, learning to do life together.
Neither Martha or her tasks were the underlying issue; both just needed to be recontextualized to God’s kingdom. This time devoted to the “one thing” would come to set the tone for approaching and accomplishing the “many things” so that from the “one thing” would flow a joy, peace, and purpose permeating the “many things”.
We all have roles; we all have duties. They become ambiguous and our frustration grows when those roles and duties are not being lived out from the kingdom context in which God has framed them. In light of the kingdom reality Christ calls us into, I pray you and your roles and duties may enter into a faith-filled spaciousness that opens your heart up to the redemption, community, and purpose his presence brings. I hope there you find the grace, clarity, and dignity that blesses and refreshes your heart for service.