Has the Pandemic Touched Mary and Martha? 

Photo by Adam Winger on Unsplash

Have you ever decided whether you are a “Mary” or a “Martha”? If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of the “Marthas” of the world.

You are not a lesser disciple because you do critical hands-on service! Yet, as usually taught, this lesson scolds for not taking time to carve out even minutes to do the recommended Bible study.

The pandemic has reinforced the importance of a better understanding of Luke 10:38-42 and an improved translation of the text is overdue. For too long, the Mary and Martha story has been used to elevate passive learning above hands-on occupations. Isn’t that correct? Didn’t Jesus himself praise Mary’s study at his feet above the serving of Martha?

The sisters’ dilemma does not reinforce Jesus’ preference for any occupation. This is not what the story teaches. Do not let the Mary and Martha story of Luke 10:38-42 undermine the dignity of so much work that must be done for all of us to have comfortable, efficient everyday lives. Mary and Martha do not reinforce the undervaluing of any kind of work.

True or False:

This story applies to women only:
Absolutely not. Both men and women are doing the hands-on labor of the working world.

In the Jewish tradition, women were not allowed to learn from a rabbi.
While women were not encouraged, they were not forbidden to study Torah at that time. A century later, rabbis are often quoted as forbidding women to learn, but that was their ideal and not likely the reality. Exceptions are known.

The scene takes place in Bethany, near Jerusalem:
Not likely, Jesus is in Galilee, not near Jerusalem at this point in Luke. Do not conflate Luke 10:38-42 with John 11-12.

Jesus is with his disciples when he visits Martha:
Most likely not. In Vs. 38 the grammar even in English translations indicates that Jesus was alone when he entered the village of a woman named Martha.

Martha is preparing food for Jesus and his disciples:
No mention of food prep or a dinner occasion is in the text. Martha’s activity is described as diakonos, which includes serving in many different capacities. This word is translated as “deacon” later in church history.

Martha is overworked because of food prep:
No, she is upset because Mary is gone, and Martha does not know where her sister is. Jesus does know. Mary is following him in ministry with other women disciples (Luke 8:1-3).

In this scene, Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus:
No. Note that Mary never speaks in this scene. She does not speak or defend herself because she is not present. Jesus does know where she is. That is why Martha pleads with Jesus, “Tell her that I need help.” Martha needs help with her service in the community. She is the first burnt-out pastor.

Jesus affirms women’s place to learn from him as a rabbi:
He does; he teaches women on many other occasions, but this is not new information. In this passage, Mary and Martha already have a reputation as Jesus’ students. They are now actively serving as disciples according to their calls.

Mary is the studied sister, Martha the practical:
No, they are both known as his students or “sitters at the feet.” Read the grammar in Greek* carefully. Translation: “Martha has a sister who also is one known as a ‘sitter at the feet, always learning’.”

Martha is the sister reprimanded by Jesus, and Mary “gets it right.”
True, but for much more understandable reasons. Martha wants Jesus to tell Mary to come home to her. Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen “good” and he will not call Mary from the disciples following him in the countryside.

Jesus tells Martha to prepare fewer dishes, or maybe only one:
No, look up the Greek* text. Many textual variants occur in this passage, which were probably added later to soften Jesus’ words to Martha.

Jesus affirms Mary’s study over Martha’s work:
No, he says Mary has chosen “good.”  The Greek* word used is agathos which does not have to be translated as “better” but also “good.” Mary has chosen “good,” and it will not be taken away from her. Jesus does not prefer Mary’s vocation over Martha’s.

*These conclusions are the result of my MA thesis in Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary. More information is available on my website Mary’s Sword. Backup for the details of translation is clearly explained in my book: The New Perspective on Mary and Martha: Do not Preach Mary and Martha Again Until You Read This! (Wipf and Stock, 2013).  Available on Amazon,  Wipf and StockCBE Catalog

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