The assigned readings in the summer lectionary are some of the “Greatest Hits” of the Gospel of Luke: The Good Samaritan, the Lord’s Prayer, and this beloved and troubling text, Luke’s version of the story of Martha and Mary. This passage has a sad history of being read to prescribe women’s roles. Jesus here seems to have the “last word” on these sisters and their ministries of service and listening.
“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.”
Ouch. So tender and so painful. Even though scholars are not at all sure what this pronouncement actually means, these two sisters have been the object of projections by centuries of commentators.
Some readers love this story, and some hate it. Others are just frustrated by how this famous passage depicts the two sisters pitted against one another and then has Jesus himself take sides. One of my best friends and favorite preachers got so worked up as she was preaching on this text that she became infuriated and exclaimed, “Jesus should never have said this!”
Breathe. Now, with hearts of hope and minds of love, with the faithful imagination of our foremothers who followed Jesus, let us search this scripture for wisdom, encouragement, and freedom.
And we will begin with sin. By sin, I mean the human need to divide and dominate. As people we are tempted to think in “twos” – good and bad, spirit and body, men and women – and then make one superior to the other and one subordinate. It’s a really handy and satisfying way to think. Then to feel okay and safe, we humans need to be better. So, we identify ourselves with the good side of the equation and put those who aren’t like us on the other side.
Now project this onto groups and see how that dividing and dominating dynamic begins to organize society and keep it in place. Law enforces the order, and by the time it goes on for a long time, those divisions and dominations live inside our heads and hearts. The division of male and female is a fundamental feature of the ancient world and of the contemporary world also. We think with it and we don’t even realize it.
In the Roman empire where the Jesus movement was growing, the superiority of males was a central item of faith, and the temptation to this dynamic touched even the church. In the early Christian writings we can see how leadership and authority gradually came to be restricted to male leaders, and the women who had been Jesus’ followers took a second seat. Women serving at the Christian table became for some a matter of controversy. So, when Jesus criticizes Martha and praises Mary, the author may be weighing in against women’s authority to serve at table.
But Jesus, the Christ, came to forgive sin, to undo its hold, and to rearrange the world – “blessed are you who are poor” – “he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent away empty.”
So, back to the story of Martha and Mary in the gospel of Luke. I come to this scripture as a person who serves at the table as a priest of the church, and as one who reads and studies scripture. I “listen to Jesus’ word” as the text literally says, and I do both as a sister and as a sinner. I come to it as a woman whose legitimacy as a priest is still contested in those Christian bodies where the division and domination of male and female prevails. And I resist, and I preach resisting, any attempt to split these two sisters, Mary and Martha, or to divide them or to put one above the other. I celebrate their discipleship and I pray for their example to empower us.
In the gospel of John, Mary and Martha have a special role among the friends of Jesus: Martha serves at the able and Mary anoints. Their roles are complementary and full of honor, and their prominence in the gospel of John invites us to imagine them in their fullness.
The word used to describe what Martha is doing, here in her own home, is not “cooking” or “fussing with food preparation” or as the NRSV translates it “many tasks” or “all the work,” but literally, and as the KJV translates it, she is occupied with “much serving.”
Remember, serving is what the angels do in the wilderness for the hungry and lonely Jesus. That serving is what Jesus commends at his last meal with his followers – “I am among you as one who serves.”
Martha and Mary are receiving Jesus; they are welcoming him, showing hospitality, inviting them into their home, sharing and returning peace. Martha and Mary are ministering to him, treating him as a neighbor, as the Samaritan did for the man in the ditch, treating his wounds, paying the bills, putting him on his own animal.
These women do two priestly acts – serving at the table and listening to his Word. These women are sisters, both biological sisters and sisters in faith, who share in ministry as partners – “he sent them out two by two.” Their bond as sisters makes it possible for each to fulfill her vocation and to bring the kingdom closer. That’s why God gives us partners, that’s why we have sisters, and that’s why we have friends.
Recall another potent meeting near the beginning of the story. A young unmarried girl has consented to a surprising role in God’s promises to Israel. So, she does not stay by herself but runs up and down through the hills to be present with her kinswoman, Elisabeth, now great with child. And there, Mary and Elisabeth together, each hear each other into speech. Elisabeth heard Mary’s greeting, and she responds in her strong voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And to the voice of Elisabeth, Mary’s voice resounds, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
So, even though it looks like Jesus here is criticizing Martha and commending Mary, I say NO to that! Doesn’t Jesus tell a parable about two brothers, one who stayed home and did what he was supposed to do and one who took everything for granted and wasted it and ran away, got lost, and for all intents and purposes, died? And their father does not choose between them or pit them against each other but holds them together as his sons and as each other’s brother. He says to the elder son, “Child, all that is mine is yours.”
Word and sacrament are not opposed. And we sisters cannot be separated or divided by the empire of sin.
Many years ago, I was a doctoral student at a university divinity school. Like many such places, its ethos was one of status seeking, rivalry, domination, winning, intellectual one-upmanship. It was really hard as we young women tried to succeed and to excel. I’m not sure how it happened, but four of us women became our own doctoral seminar, off the grid, not in the catalog. And in those meetings, we shared our chapters and read other’s pages and recommended reading and built on each other’s ideas. And we were all smart and had different styles and personalities and expertise, and in those meetings we heard each other into speech, and the Spirit blew and lifted us all. God’s death-defying, fear-conquering Spirit removed the sting from the dynamic of division and domination. We named ourselves, found our voices, became subjects and not objects. A new creation came to life and grew.
As I put the pieces of Martha and Mary’s story together – I read with imagination fueled by the spirit and by the promises and love of God – I look behind and beyond the prejudices and preferences that shaped the story. In Luke 8:1-3, it says that listening to Jesus preach the good news…
… were some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who served them. [Luke 8:1-3 NRSV translates "served" as "provided for."]
Those women were following and they were serving – we don’t know how many there were, but the text says there were many. Martha and Mary would have been there with the other women of means who were hearing his word and letting it grow within them. They would have been among those serving and financing the movement.
And then later on, faith and hope had kept them at the cross and made them note where he was laid. Love and loyalty made them prepare the spices and return there in spite of danger. They found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. And the scripture says,
Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. [Luke 24:8-10]
We are told the names of three of the witnesses, and I think there is a good case for us to include two other names, Martha and her sister Mary. They remembered the words they heard on the plain and the words they heard at his feet. They remembered how he preached good news to the poor, and they remembered that he would cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.
They knew that by his death and his resurrection to life, God had overcome all the forces that divide and dominate, and had given the church - Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female - had given to that church freedom, energy, and the power to serve.
Thanks be to God for wisdom, encouragement, and freedom. For us all.
Holy and Loving God, who gave Marth and Mary courage to serve and to listen, empower us all to receive Jesus and to serve the world in his name. Amen.
NOTE: The work of many sisters and friends has contributed to this homiletical reading of Mary and Martha including especially, Barbara Reid and Shelly Matthews, The Gospel of Luke, Wisdom Bible Commentary (Liturgical Press), Holly Hearon, "From Text to Sermon, Luke 10:38-42," Interpretation, 58.4, 2004, Mitzi J. Smith, "A Tale of Two Sisters: Am I My Sister's Keeper?" Journal of Religious Thought, 1996, and Barbara Rossing, Jennifer Berenson, and Ellen Aitken.