A Fresh look at Mary and Martha
For such a fleeting encounter with Jesus, Mary and Martha get an incredible pulpit exposure. Perhaps it is simply that with a Bible reflecting a time where women were often only considered bit players, when it finally comes to the occasional Biblical anecdote where women are considered important enough to name, and particularly for stories in which something of their character comes across in the dialogue, they are given more than the expected attention. Given this consequent focus, and with literally millions of mentions of Mary and Martha on the Internet, I am not confident that anything I might add by way of commentary on today’s gospel will break new ground in a much trampled small field.
Nevertheless because both Mary and Martha represent standard and very different attitudes to Jesus, it may help some to remind them of why Jesus is recorded as admonishing Martha, when it is she who appears the humble worker in the household. Since servant- hood is supposed to be at the heart of the Jesus way, it is perhaps even more unexpected that it was the Martha with the overt servant attitude whom Jesus chose to correct.
In terms of society expectations of the day, we might suppose Martha would be the one who should be acknowledged. Remember the woman’s place at that time was to be the stay-at- home housekeeper. The woman was the one to do the cooking, the cleaning and the offering of hospitality to the honoured guest. Seen – and preferably at a distance, and definitely not heard, it was not women but rather the men who were expected to sit with the guests. In this sense, in the same way that Paul was recorded sitting at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22.3) by sitting at Jesus feet, Mary was simply adopting the role of a student in the presence of a teacher. Being merely present and listening in the background is to be a spectator. On the other hand, sitting at the feet of a rabbi was a natural position for one who wished eventually to emulate the teacher and even adopt his role. But in terms of what would be expected this would have been a challenge to the traditional roles because in so doing she was also adopting the role of a man. So in terms of cultural patterns it should be stressed it was Mary who was not conforming. Instead of sharing in the cooking, cleaning and offering hospitality she was apparently sitting at Jesus feet, and we might imagine she was there hanging on his every word.
What Martha did about this may be criticised in hindsight, but it was at least a predictable human response. Traditionally religious followers often become convinced that their personal religious insights are best for everyone and sometimes it is more helpful to remember that although the eventual direction may be somewhat similar there are different journeys with some degree of validity – and even on our own individual journey there will be many different twists and turns – and different rates of progress.
For example, one or two of the commentators have suggested that the Mary in this story is actually Mary of Magdalene, and tradition suggests that it was rather later in her pilgrimage that she came to see servant-hood as an ideal. If as other scholars, suggest she is also the same Mary who later washes Jesus feet, then it is clearly not Martha’s acceptance of servant-hood that concerns Jesus.
At first glance, for our modern generation, it almost looks as if Jesus is taking sides in the progressive camp versus fundamentalist/conservative faction. Progressives are of course very much into equality and would presumably support Mary wanting to learn or even question as a man, whereas, if some of the older literature coming out of the conservative Christian camp is to be believed, the Martha like homebody, there to serve her man, would almost be the archetype Christian housewife.
As attractive as that side-taking might be to a liberal progressive, I suspect this interpretation would not bear up under scrutiny. Remember Jesus is presented in the context of one who has just finished telling the story of the Good Samaritan in which he praises the one who took the part of a good neighbour in offering tangible service, and in a number of other places, Jesus is clearly in favour of his followers adopting the role of servants.
On re-reading this incident I am coming round to think that rather than objecting to Martha’s willingness to serve her household, Jesus might have been rather focussing on the bit where Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary she should be following Martha’s example in that she should be sharing in the background humble tasks of hospitality.
The phrase “tell my sister she should help me” might, after all, be interpreted as being shorthand for implying that “Since my way is best, others should do as I do”.
In the context of a Jewish village, Martha would no doubt assume that Mary like herself was almost morally obligated to service, in that accepting the Jewish faith was also buying into the Jewish customs of the time. I would also wonder if that statement she makes to Jesus is very different from a phrase we commonly hear in many societies about new immigrants. “Well they chose to come here – so they should adopt our way of life.”
Remember that all the gospel writers had to make choices from a host of anecdotal material about Jesus and his teaching. The fact that they were also writing at the time of the dispersion of Jews from Jerusalem made it imperative that some attention be given to Jesus teaching which suggests how the soon to be homeless Jews should cope with those with different attitudes to faith, and I would like to think that this in fact is one of those passages.
As Jesus makes his way towards Jerusalem, the gospel writers use a number of examples to show Jesus’ teaching has the effect of opening those who encounter him to new attitudes to custom, to law and to those discovered in their day-to-day encounters. However we should not think that these glimpses necessarily replace one set of formulae – in other words the law – with another new set of formulae to cover every situation.
If Luke was recording this story to prepare Jews and new Christians for the unpredictable experiences they were likely to encounter, Martha’s implied “My way as the only way”, is hardly the most helpful to represent the new Christian faith. Jesus was presenting a new version of faith particularly one which also claims to give preference for a pattern of behaviour in which tolerance, forgiveness and what we would now call situational ethics being used to guide his followers’ choices. Nor for that matter is the insistence on our own preferred pattern of behaviour as a model for others appropriate for our own developing multi faith situations.
We simply do not know how might Jesus have responded if the roles had been reversed, and instead, if it had been Mary insisting that Martha come away from the kitchen and join her at the feet of Jesus. I would like to think that had such a situation arisen Jesus might have suggested to Mary that there are other forms of service to be accomplished than that of listening to words of inspiration.
Jesus, in effect recognising Mary’s quest for wisdom as being more important for her current situation than her need to conform to custom, is at least suggesting a different way of valuing the choices of other people. Since few of us live in the equivalent of the Jewish village – but instead live in what has become an increasingly multi cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith society, perhaps there is a case for mulling over Jesus’ reply.
We are surrounded community-wise if not own household-wise by a wide range of responses to challenges of faith. We may not like it – and indeed may even resent others in their personal approaches to faith, but is it not possible that like Martha we can become excessively distracted by such matters?
In reality, for all of us, there are different times in our lives when we should be seeking guidance – and other occasions when it is time to act. In others words there is probably a little of Martha and Mary in all of us. Yet since each of us are going to be at different stages of the journey, to focus on someone else’s time of contemplation and insist instead that they join us in whatever activity of service we are currently engaged upon, risks turning us from a humble servant to a nagging Martha.
Ultimately, for faith to have meaning to those who look on, the marks of faith will shape our lives. If on reflection we note that we are becoming excessively worried about how realistic others are being about their faith, it is then just maybe, we might recall Luke’s story of Mary and Martha.
Furthermore, it is a characteristic of our age that we tend to associate ourselves with others who share our way of thinking. This means that our Churches often become examples of group-think and instead of being mildly judgemental as Martha-like individuals it is possible the group invests power of similar collective thinking to the point where its judgement is magnified in its effect. Even a relatively small group sharing a highly judgemental attitude to those who worship differently or who allow different standards of behaviour can derive enough internal agreement to condone or sponsor actions which would have been unlikely to have been generated if left to the good sense of individuals merely trying to be helpful to those they meet.
I have for example encountered attempted missionary work in some nations which is blocked by State authorities disgusted at judgemental attitudes of previous missionaries. For example parts of India and the Middle East are closed to Christian missionaries whose predecessors have taught that the local religion is evil. Since most religions teach concern for one another it simply may be that we should admit to ourselves the Martha/Mary focus on differences can become harmful if allowed to grow unchecked.
Since I suspect there is good and bad in all of us, it may be time for some self checking. We will no doubt on occasion all find ourselves irritated by those who express faith in actions of a form we currently disparage. Are we content to seek our own faith and express it in a way that does not denigrate fellow seekers, or do we too need someone to remind us that the Marys in our life may be doing just fine without the need of our judgement?
POST SCRIPT Because this site is intended to stimulate thought, if you do happen to note that I have missed key ideas, or alternately that I have written something you do not accept, I would be grateful if you leave a comment. (I would hate to think I had the last word!)