Mary, you’re making Martha uncomfortable.
This is the tenth in a series of twelve reflections on the story of Mary and Martha, found in Luke 10.38-42. If you’d like to read the whole series, start with the first post , where they are listed in full at the end of the piece.
As always, let’s begin with the text:
Now as they went on their way, he 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.” — Luke 10.38-42 (NRSV)
If Martha sits at Jesus’s feet, there might be a lot less homemade cranberry sauce at dinner.
Martha was not pleased with Mary’s behavior. Why, exactly, did she disapprove? Was it simply that she needed the practical help in the kitchen? Or was she envious of Mary’s ability to leave the work without guilt? Perhaps Martha wished that she could sit at Jesus’s feet as well, but she felt so confined by her self-image that she didn’t feel free to break out of traditional roles and receive Jesus’s invitation to learn. I wonder if Martha felt like she wished she could stop working on household tasks too — what freedom to have that choice!
The fact is, Martha did have the choice to sit with Jesus. She could have dropped the meal preparations and brought the household gears to a standstill. That would have been okay. But was it worth it to her to tolerate her discomfort about the undone work as a woman in that time? Could she have released her convictions about hospitality and generosity enough to really pay attention to Jesus, even if this might have looked insulting in that culture? Martha would have needed to be quite confident in her own identity as a child of God to risk projecting an image of domestic incompetence, even if her true motivation was to express her love for Jesus.
I wonder, too, if Martha was so uncomfortable with Mary’s rejection of traditional female behavior that she wanted to stop it at all costs. The Women’s Bible Commentary speculates: “Martha’s demand may be based as much on her discomfort at her sister’s unconventional behavior as on her need for assistance.” (pg. 575) Perhaps Martha was so wedded to cultural expectations that she could not consider dispensing with them — certainly in her own conduct, but even in the that of her sister.
Feminists might scoff at this tension, looking with disapproval on the way Martha was unfairly bound by the expectations of her society. And yet even today, the tension is not so different. Sure, it is more acceptable to get take-out for dinner and women don’t have to spend all their time in the kitchen. But when Jesus comes to visit, are we really able to sit with him? Sometimes we might, but often we need to check our email or run off to an appointment or just take this phone call. Male or female, we have exchanged our bonds of domestic expectations for bonds of productivity and efficiency. Our activities are perhaps different, but we are still “worried and distracted by many things.”
Sitting with Jesus is a countercultural practice, whether I’m living in the first century or the 21st. I’m grateful that he is willing to teach me about how to do it.
When do I resist Jesus do to my identification with a particular role or self-image?
Where in my own life does tradition trump a pliable response to the Spirit?
Am I willing to tolerate social discomfort in order to respond authentically to Jesus?
Resources used in this piece:
The Women’s Bible Commentary