I’ve been reading the Martha and Mary story in the gospel of Luke wrong for decades.
Or perhaps, more accurately, I haven’t perceived it’s full, gorgeous, meaning, until recently.
If you grew up in church, you know the story. In case you didn’t, here it is:
Jesus and his disciples stop at the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary, to spend time with them. Martha gets busy in the kitchen preparing a meal worthy of an honored guest. Mary sits and listens to Jesus. Martha comes out and sharply asks Jesus to tell Mary to get up and help her with the cooking and serving. Jesus responds with this tender reply:
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
There are so many beautiful nuggets to pull from this story. But until recently, this is what I missed:
In this instance, Martha found her value in traditional, cultural feminine role as hostess.
Mary put herself in the place of a disciple of Jesus.
This is not radical to you, woman of the 21th century that you are, with likely multiple Bibles in your house of various translations. You’ve been to services weekly, sitting next to brothers, fathers, or your spouse. But in Mary and Martha’s time this was not so. Women did not worship alongside men; they were not taught alongside men. And women did not have the option to train as disciples of a Rabbi. It was not done.
And yet here Mary sits, at Jesus’ feet, with the other disciples. She was being taught by a Rabbi. Being a disciple who has the honor of receiving wisdom from Jesus: that’s the better part.
Every other way I’ve read and taught this story has fallen short of this glory. Here’s what I’ve seen as “the better” in the past:
1. It’s better to ask for help ahead of time than to snap at your sister in front of your guests. This is a great boundaries lesson, and one I have given to young groups of moms in the past. Go ahead and serve, just don’t serve until you’re bitter.
2. It’s better to spend time with Jesus than to get taken up with tasks. Much has been written about this. There’s even a book called Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. But it’s a false dichotomy that has always troubled me. Martha and Mary aren’t personality types; the story is about their actions in one situation, not their hearts on a grand scale. You can be a task master and a lover of Jesus and people – you don’t have to choose. (And if we did make Martha into a type, let me tell you, sister, it’s Type Martha that’s running the church preschool, the refugee ministry, the adult ed classes and the church thrift store. This prompted me to write a blog years ago called “In Defense of Martha,” which you can read here. https://scrapsofsoul.blogspot.com/2010/10/in-defense-of-martha.html )
Like a few other lessons I learned in church, both of these teachings were more likely to shame women that refresh them; they were more likely to affirm traditional roles than examine them.
What Jesus is offering Mary and Martha is bigger than the invitation to order takeout on Thanksgiving so you can hang out with your guests; it’s broader and more grace-extending than a religious command to leave the dishes in the sink while you read your Bible every morning. It’s certainly not a shaming message, that you need to get up at five a.m. to make sure to formally study the Scriptures before the kids get out of bed. Instead, Jesus is offering equality to women and the privilege of finding an identity as disciple, student and friend.
He is offering the highest identity offered to a human, and he offers it to both sisters. Mary took him up on it that day; Martha, perhaps, didn’t even realize that’s what was going on.
Sisters, every other identity we have is second to this. Every other identity we have is in flux. If you have a career, it is but for a season. If you are raising young children, this too shall pass. If you are an athlete, your body won't allow that forever. Your place as a wife will not continue into heaven. If you are cooking a huge Thanksgiving feast this year, it may be at your daughter-in-law's house next year. But to be a student of Jesus, saved by Jesus, is something that never can and never will be taken from you.
So don’t let this story be one more way that you are a woman being told you are falling short. Don’t be typecast. Don't be shamed. But instead, receive this invitation with honor, to make it a life-long pursuit to be a disciple of Jesus, to learn from him, to listen to him, to walk in his footsteps and to take his name.