Reading: Luke 10.38-42
Jesus 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.’
Today’s brief reading from Luke’s gospel is almost as well-known as yesterday’s parable of the Good Samaritan. It is also a reading that has been subjected to a surprisingly varied range of interpretations, with different motives and motivations being presumed and expounded by preachers and commentators. In my lifetime I have heard many preachers address these few verses in so many different ways. In general, they settle on an interpretation which casts Martha as a model of active spirituality, and Mary as a model of the contemplative approach to prayer and worship. This interpretation has worked for many people over a long period of time, but recently I came to wonder whether we should be looking for a deeper meaning in these few words.
When reading about the way in which first century Jewish society worked, I encountered a different angle from which to consider Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary. In Jewish homes, as in synagogues, there was a clear distinction between male and female. The public room of the house was the domain of the man, while the kitchen and other quarters were the places where the women gathered. The only places in the house where male and female mixed were the marital bedroom and the area where children played together. This domestic set-up puts a different slant on today’s reading. While Martha was busy with the household chores, Mary had trespassed into a strictly male domain. Furthermore, she had adopted the role and the posture of the (male) student, at the rabbi’s feet.
Why should this information make a difference? Well, it was not remarked or frowned upon by Jesus, so should it be by us? It is fair for us to assume that Jesus approved of this ‘scandalous’ break with the protocols of the time. Taking that to be the case, Mary becomes a model for Jesus’ new way of living. Throughout his ministry Jesus challenged the unnecessary and inappropriate man-made conventions of religious practice. Jesus urged those around him to live a counter-cultural life of love and service, and not just a life of blind obedience.
Preachers often conclude their sermons on this passage by asking us to consider who we identify with in our prayer and worship: Martha or Mary? I, however, am inviting you to identify with both of them!