I recently wrote an abstract to present a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting to be held in Denver, November 2018. In the process of writing on Luke 10:38-42, I reviewed my ideas that took seed at least eight years ago. I wrote my master’s thesis on the topic and then rewrote that material in a more accessible version that was published by Wipf & Stock in 2013.
My Mary and Martha thesis still lives! I do not regret what I published, and I have since deepened my thoughts on Mary and Martha. A huge sigh of relief! The biggest fear of an author is to have published and then wish it hadn’t seen the light of day. So, for some of you who are joining me now, I am offering the Cliff Notes version of my Mary and Martha story.
Many credible voices have preceded me in agreeing that this story needs to be reviewed:
G.B. Caird (1963): “Few stories in the gospels have been as consistently mishandled as this one.” Craddock (1990): “If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever.” Barbara Reid (1996): “Our instincts are correct when they tell us something is wrong with this picture.”
We have all sat through numerous sermons on the necessity of becoming more Mary-like when so many “Martha” activities pull us in every direction. It leaves us with a knot in the stomach. Notice how strongly this contrast between Mary and Martha is engraved in our brains. I do not even have to explain; it is common cultural currency.
The well-known interpretation does not consider how this story may read by women (and men) who live outside the privileged hermeneutic of western Christianity. Menial work, service to others, and work to simply survive is denigrated. The ability to read and study depends on availability of resources not available to all people. Are they “lessor” disciples?
I have drawn ideas from notables such as: Schüssler-Fiorenza (1992), Annie Hentschel (2007), Warren Carter (2001), Dorothy Lee (2002), Mary Rose D’Angelo (1990), Barbara Reid (1996) and others who offer steps to a fresh interpretation. After considering variants in the Greek texts and scrutinizing Greek vocabulary, this is my translation of Luke 10:38-42:
38) As they were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha received him.
39) She had a sister called Mary, who also was one who sat at the Lord’s feet, always listening to his words.
40) But Martha was constantly torn apart concerning much ministry. She suddenly approached him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister regularly leaves me to minister alone?” Tell her therefore that she may give me a hand.”
41) But the Lord answered her saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and agitated concerning much,
42) but only one thing is needed: for Mary has chosen good and it will not be taken away from her.
You do not have to trust my translation! Following is my work with Greek and how I came to my conclusions. Or, you can just skip the following:
Vs.38: Greek grammar indicates Jesus is alone as he approaches the unknown town of Martha. αὐτὸς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς κώμην τινά (Jesus is alone; “they” as a verb subject changes to “he”; the village is unspecified)
Martha “receives” him. ὑπεδέξατο αὐτόν (she accepts his message) Textual variants cloud whether “into a house, into her house” is original. (the house setting was added in a later text)
Vs. 39 starts with καὶ in the UBS4. A following καὶ is not translated in English but could be added as “also.” A textually uncertain relative pronoun, [ἣ] “who” can be inserted. The Greek for “listening” is an a/m participle; [ἣ] καὶ παρακαθεσθεῖσα which can be translated substantively as “one who sits herself.” Result: “And she had a sister called Mary WHO ALSO was one who sat at the feet always listening.” ἤκουενis imperfect (both sisters were known as sitters at the feet)
Vs. 40 “distracted” περιεσπᾶτο is imperfect; “leaves” may be imperfect, depending on the variant chosen. (Mary’s absence is an ongoing issue with Martha)
Vs. 40 Martha’s distraction is described by vocabulary indicating great turmoil, περιεσπᾶτο περὶ πολλὴν διακονίαν. Imperfect again indicates ongoing anxiety. Διακονίαν indicates that her overwhelming work was related to what is understood today as diaconal work. (vocabulary and imperfect indicate bigger problems than serving a meal)
Vs. 41 Jesus’ final word does not have to be translated in the superlative. It can be translated “Mary has chosen a ‘good’ portion,” Μαριὰμ γὰρ τὴν ἀγαθὴν μερίδα ἐξελέξατο “and it will not be taken away from her.” Many variants indicate uncertainty about “one, or many portions,” in the attempt to mitigate Martha’s culpability according to the traditional dining setting. (Mary’s choice of activity is good, and she will not be removed from it to help Martha)
If you do not want to wade through the Greek, here is the bottom line:
Jesus approaches Martha alone in an unknown village. Dinner preparations are not in evidence; Mary does not speak because Mary is not present. This is a conversation between Jesus and Martha alone concerning Martha’s load of unspecified responsibilities which she must carry out without her sister. Mary’s activity is “good” not necessarily better.
Luke 10:38-42 has challenged exegetes, scribes, and pastors for millennia. Textual variants permeate these four verses, indicating scribal questions from the beginning. The vocabulary and verb tenses depict a broader scene than domestic dining. More accurate cultural-historical knowledge erases misconceptions formed by the entrenched traditional interpretation. The surrounding context of Luke offers more appropriate understandings of Mary and Martha.
A new story emerges that does not pit sister against sister, nor a contemplative life as preferable to the life of service. Jesus addresses Martha’s turmoil but does not lighten her load. Old family ties are loosened, new family ties are formed. Discipleship is valid whether practical or spiritual, as well as in the domestic setting or foreign.