Mary, Martha and Cliché Christianese

As most of you know, I didn’t grow up in the church. I quickly learned, though, once I became a regular church attendee that church culture can be…interesting. What made it interesting were those overused “church phrases.” You know which I’m talking about, those clichés yanked from Scripture for the intent of fitting them on a mug or a T-shirt.

Early on in my faith journey, I began wrestling (there’s another church word for you) with the importance of slowing down and taking time to rest. One specific night while at one of my first small groups, I admitted to a new “mature in the faith” friend about how busy I was with life-stuff and how this was taking away time from me focusing on my faith. My well-meaning friend looked at me and as-a-matter-of-fact-ly told me that I shouldn’t “be a Martha.”

“Huh?” I asked.

He continued sharing the famous sister-squabbling story with me. I know you’ve heard it before: Mary is busy in the kitchen doing housework, as she should be; she gets angry at her sister Mary because she is “resting” at Jesus’s feet…when she should be doing housework alongside Martha; Martha complains to Jesus and Jesus affirms that Mary is doing the right thing by not working so hard, but by sitting and listening to him. And so the moral of the story becomes: “Don’t be a Martha, be a Mary” i.e. “take time to rest and listen to Jesus instead of working so hard.” I’ve even heard it go as far as to be used to denounce “works-based salvation.”

And don’t get me wrong…I get it. It’s cute and offers a great lesson to rest in the presence of Jesus, because after all, hard work is what our culture is all about, isn’t it? I’ll admit, I became a Mary-evangelist—even telling people to “not be a Martha” myself.

It wasn’t until semi-recently I learned about two interesting things that forced me to take another look at this text: syntax and culture.

It happened several months ago during a Greek exegesis course on the book of Acts with Dr. Gerald Stevens (incredible professor/class). We got to translating Acts 22:3, where Paul states, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers…” Dr. Stevens proceeded to explain that “at the feet” was a phrase commonly used in the First Century when referring to Jewish rabbis. “Sitting at someone’s feet” was a grand deal, as it meant that you were involved in higher education by learning from them and being their disciple. It was common practice for boys to do this after spending the first part of their lives attending the synagogue regularly for the purpose of memorizing the Scriptures. What rabbi they sat under played a huge role into their spiritual formation, as each rabbi had his own interpretation and thoughts about the Scriptures. As Paul states, he sat at the feet of a very prominent Jewish rabbi at the time, Gamaliel. This was a serious thing and gave Paul high status as a “Pharisee of Pharisees.”

As I’m sure you already know, things were different for women in the First Century. Jewish girls were not sent to the synagogue daily to be educated in the Scriptures, and consequently, did not get to be a disciple, or “sit at the feet” of prominent rabbis. To give you some perspective, a famous rabbi in the First Century, Rabbi Eliezer, is known for saying things like, "Instructing a woman in the Law is like teaching her blasphemy" and "Let the Law be burned rather than entrusted to a woman."


But, why is this important?

Well, let’s visit the famous Martha-Mary account and see:

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’  But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her’” (italics mine) –Luke 10:38-42

M. Hanson offers a critical reading of the Greek text* (along with robust historical insight) in her book A New Perspective on Mary and Martha. She reminds us that the text states that Mary was someone who sat at the Lord’s feet. Based on what we know about this terminology, namely, that it’s figurative (how Paul used it about Gamaliel) not literal (physically doing it in the moment), it implies a position/title of “disciple.” Going further, when we look at the literary context, several verses before the Martha-Mary episode, “The Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place he himself was about to go”—Luke 10:1. Because of this, Hanson suggests that Mary may not have even been present in the narrative, because she was probably out evangelizing, as the text offers.

I’m a lover of all things literary-context, and I found this to be striking. Perhaps Mary was doing as Jesus had commanded her? Perhaps this is why Martha addresses Jesus, asking him to tell Mary to come help…instead of asking Mary herself? After all, wouldn’t this be more socially acceptable considering the cultural context?

Regardless if you agree with Hanson about whether Mary was in the room or not, we can all still agree on one thing: Mary being a disciple of Jesus was quite scandalous. Perhaps that’s why Martha was bothered…because her sister was breaking cultural norms? However, how does Jesus respond to Martha’s suggestion? Well, she’s doing what’s good, of course (Luke 10:40).

S. Attebury explains considering C.S. Crowley’s research that by placing the study of the word of God above the socially and culturally imposed gender role of the time, Jesus made it clear that a woman’s worth and dignity is apart from what society might claim. Her status is not dependent on her relationship to a man or her role in culture but is dependent on her relationship to God.

As always, Jesus throws a socially acceptable custom and norm on its head.

It’s also important to notice that just two chapters before this Mary-Martha episode in Luke 10, we hear about specific women disciples who accompanied Jesus through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. Besides the twelve, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and “many others” who actually paid for the ministry out of their own pocket (for more on patrons, check out this post)—Luke 8:1-3.

As J. Lyle Story puts it, “True service must be preceded by the non-sexist response of genuine discipleship. The response of faith and listening to Jesus are universal in nature and provide the common and equal ground between women and men. This is Jesus’ radical message, which effected changes in Christianity in the First Century AD. Women, as well as men, are summoned by Jesus to responsive discipleship to Jesus’s words. The Jesus story could not be told without a realistic narration detailing the women who were touched by the radical Jesus; they surely belong to the company of disciples.”

Perhaps a critical reading of Scripture leads us to see deeper into the movement of Jesus—a part of which involved affirming women in leadership, ministry and discipleship. No, Jesus’s intent wasn’t to start a feminist revolution, but to start a Gospel one—which consequently, would lead to hope and freedom for all peoples including the poor, the diseased, the immigrant, the non-Jew, the other, and yes, the woman.



* Hanson also points out that nowhere in the text does it say that Martha was doing housework. The Greek states that she was “busy with much serving.” The Greek word used for service is diakonia, which implies any type of ministry-type service. Hanson gives a wonderfully compelling argument for the leadership role that Martha and Mary BOTH played in this story and in the account of Lazarus in the book of John.