Often our gospel story for today is interpreted to reinforce the dichotomies we fall into so easily. You may have been asked in bible studies before- are you a Mary or a Martha?
Are you a doer or a listener?
Yet- is this what the author of Luke is trying to say? Is this story intentionally shaming the work Martha is doing in favor of Mary? Is it just a weird coincidence then, that this passage follows the Good Samaritan which ends with – go and do likewise? Could there be more than two choices- do work or study?
Is it possible that the world that we like to see as black and white – really be much more? What if we could open up our two boxes of this or that – and see the world as a spectrum- as a beautiful rainbow? Many things, blending into one another.
Sure, it’s messy. There are way less distinctions. And it may be closer to the kingdom of God, than the black and white I know at least I prefer.
Let’s dive into this text a bit deeper.
Did you catch that bit at the beginning? Whose house did Jesus go to? You might know that Mary and Martha are Lazarus’s sisters. We may be tempted to think that this is Lazarus’s house – or assume that Mary or Martha must have a husband who owns the house. The scripture though tells us that “a woman named Martha welcome him into HER house.”
Throughout the gospel of Luke, the author hits themes of Jewish family life many times. One of the biggest aspects of the Hebrew culture, especially around your home is hospitality. We can’t miss that crucial piece of this short story. Extending hospitality to strangers is a major tenant of the faith – one commentator I read noted – an absolute requirement and therefore Martha’s “busyness” is not a target for current critiques of our cult of busy. While we have convinced ourselves that we must always be overworked, over scheduled, under slept, and working as hard as we can to be worthy, or successful – this is not something that is fair to but on Martha.
As we look into the Greek – the original word used for the “work” Martha is doing is diaconia. I always grew up hearing from this story, Martha was busy in the kitchen and women’s work – yet the Greek word translated to “work” or better “serving” is the word that describes the work of a Deacon. Leadership work in the church – the work and role I am called to.
Serving is at the heart of the work of a deacon. Hospitality, work of compassion, welcoming, caring for, advocating for. Martha is busy with the work of ministry and hospitality – not just busyness – and that is an important distinction.
This passage has also been used to shame Martha for doing stereotypical women’s work. Hear this scholar’s understanding of this problem:
It does matter that we notice when the scene valorizes Mary’s choice to engage in study with a teacher. That means that Luke’s storyteller sees Torah study as being open to women, not just to men. This is important and reveals something about eh social world out of which this story comes. This matters. But is also matters that we not shame Martha, especially for doing “women’s work” – Hospitality is the duty of the entire household, for one thing – and tasks traditionally performed by women as are honorable as any other tasks. Limiting women to only those traditional tasks is not honorable, but the tasks themselves are crucial to our life together, no matter who does them.
So here are we left with the contrast – not between women’s work and men’s study – but the many things and the one thing.
There are many things that are important and we must all attend to – hospitality, work, cooking, family life, church life, children, the sick, the hungry.
What is that one thing that Jesus says is necessary? The one thing that holds all of the many together? In this context – studying the Torah, understanding the law. All human life is shaped by the Torah.
Scripture gives us wisdom and strength. It shapes our lives through the stories of the people of God, and provides us with a window into who God is through the stories of Jesus. God, as revealed through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience is the one thing we need to be able to faithfully do anything else.
God is our source. It is not that the ministry and hospitality work of Martha isn’t important. We can choose to study and to serve. We must to choose to study and to serve. Let us hear the words of Jesus – and remember to always seek God first.