Mary and Martha of Luke 10:38-42 are intended to teach both women and men, in all times and places. Have you ever thought about how this story applies to someone who has no house, no table, or a stocked pantry? Is it realistic to assume that all readers have adequate time, income, and control over their own lives to apply this text as it has been traditionally understood?
We all bring our presuppositions, environment, and previous experiences into understanding a text. We read Luke 10:38-42—all biblical texts—with an affluent, 21st century hermeneutic. If you are holding this book in your hands, then you can read English and you have funds to buy a book or a computer. We mistakenly think that all people, everywhere, in all times and places understand the text as we do.
Imagine that you do not have electricity for a lamp to enable reading after the evening is dark, appropriate reading glasses, and a chair in a quiet environment with some time to reflect. In addition, someone—the government, your owner, or a male relative— threatens to take away your Bible and Christian literature. Perhaps, as a woman, you could be punished for even learning to read. Is this person going to gain the same application from the story of Mary and Martha?
A woman with a hungry family who hears this story may lament, “Martha has a kitchen, she has food to share, and she can entertain a guest, or perhaps even treat friends to a banquet. I look at my hungry children and I wonder if I would even be willing to share the last crumbs in my pocket with Jesus.”
Luke 10:38-42 as traditionally taught is very discouraging for this woman. “Those Christians who know a lot, who have studied, they are the ones that delight the Lord and are doing his will.” She imagines that her life would be better if she could please God by studying his Bible and she longs to be more knowledgeable. She resigns herself to being lessor like Martha because her days are spent in grueling work conditions. Didn’t he say that “Mary had chosen the best part?” This woman prays, “Forgive me for being a lessor disciple, help me learn more somehow.”
We must urgently rethink the Mary and Martha story. It has been interpreted and preached for centuries by men who have the resources to imagine Martha in a well-stocked kitchen. The same commentators cubbyhole women in traditional women’s work; if it involves two sisters, then of course they are in conflict. One must be a “winner” and one a “loser” to make the story preach.
In addition, in the time of the first recorded interpretations, the spiritual life was considered superior to the practical life. Gnostic and Platonic philosophy penetrated theology and carried into Christian thought. The world was divided between weak and strong, men and women, good and bad. The fleshly life was bad, the life of the mind was good. The theologians of the time naturally turned to a “good” woman, “bad” woman understanding of Mary and Martha. Through the centuries, the most prevalent lesson from Mary & Martha was: Mary got it right, Martha got it wrong; be more like the contemplative Mary, less like the too busy Mary.
The end result of this flawed understanding is that the student of Luke 10:38-42 must resolve to do better. She must get up earlier, short-change less important activities, and carve out some time to study the Bible. We of the affluent hermeneutic can afford to do this. Most of us probably can find some time to study, study more in-depth, learn Hebrew and Greek. Soon more is not enough. The learning of all things biblical never stops and we let it take over our libraries. This can become idolatrous in itself. We imagine we are gaining God’s favor by studying ever more.
Now rethink the text of Luke 10:38-42. Both Mary and Martha are known as willing and gifted students, sitting at the feet of Jesus, hearing every word. The text in Greek can indeed be translated to legitimately say this. On the day of Jesus visit, Martha is at home by herself frantic about her sister, who is gone. She doesn’t know where Mary went, but she knows Jesus knows. She asks Jesus forcibly, “Tell her therefore, that she may give me a hand with the work.” The work that is overwhelming her is diaconal work in the village. She is ministering to the new Jesus followers. She is burnt-out.
Now the “right” sister and “less-right” sister scenario is gone. The story is about two female disciples, fulfilling their individual callings as they are gifted. One is taking care of the sick, orphans, new believers, or whatever is required in a first century Jewish village. The other is evangelizing in the countryside with Jesus. The spiritual is not preferred above the practical. Accurate to the Greek text, Jesus actually says, “Mary has chosen good and it will not be taken from her.”
Martha is still the sister that needs the “attitude adjustment,” but in a far more understandable sense. She wants her sister home, she wants Jesus to make it happen. But Jesus tells her that Mary is doing her Kingdom work where she is and he is not going to send her home.
Now, how does this story sound different to the woman who has little control over her schedule, or even her life? She can be reassured that whatever work she must do during her long day, she does not have to feel guilty and pressured to find yet more time to study. How does this woman advance in her knowledge? Praise God, the Spirit has his ways! She may meet the right friends who can converse with her about the gospel while doing field work, she may find a radio program, she may observe the wonders of nature while getting water and praise God. She does not have to be burdened with trying to be a “Mary.”