It is a lovely late afternoon in the little village of Bethany on a hilltop outside Jerusalem. This is a delightful place to visit because it offers a breeze above the valley. But Jesus stops here often for more than that. He knows he has friends in the persons of Martha and her siblings, Mary and Lazarus.
This day, as the family of Bethany looks down the road, they see Jesus and some of his disciples approaching. They know there will be time for conversation and food and rest before this group heads on into Jerusalem.
After a flurry of greetings, Martha is off to organize the meal. In a world without freezers or the possibility of takeout, unexpected guests can cause a bit of a stir.
True to her understanding of her place in that first century world, Martha goes to work to produce a meal for several hungry men. She looks out toward the gathering in the courtyard. Jesus is speaking and all are listening — including her sister Mary, who is sitting at the Lord’s feet. That is a problem!
However, it is a problem that we can too easily misunderstand. In the language of that day, “sitting and listening” is assuming the posture of a disciple. Mary has chosen to do what women do not do. Only males could be disciples of a rabbi.
Mary’s action might be perceived as unseemly by neighbors who had certainly added themselves to the group in that friendly way of small towns where visitors are shared.
Big sister Martha does what she thinks is proper. She approaches Jesus with a manufactured complaint: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself. Tell her to help me.” (Luke 10:40 NRSV)
If this were the first visit of Jesus to Bethany, I doubt she would have been so direct. Today, her normally balanced view of her place in the world snaps, and Martha attempts to get Jesus to support her in nudging Mary to a more womanly life.
Jesus is certainly up to sorting out Martha’s dilemma. He gently scolds her, not for preparing a meal — he would like his supper as much as his companions would — but because Martha has become “worried and distracted by many things.”
He replies: “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42 NRSV)
We are all a bit thrown by Jesus’ answer because the text can be ambiguous. It literally says, in Greek, that she has chosen “the good”, that is, a good which is better for her. Do note that Jesus never tells Martha to stop what she is doing.
These might be two siblings but they have different gifts. The answer of Jesus is a wonderful declaration that each woman is to do what it is hers to do, to follow her skill set. His response is indeed an emancipation proclamation that rattles the first century world.
This is a prime lesson in discipleship. Jesus is telling his listeners that they are not all called to the same vocation. They must do what will best fulfill each of them with the gifts God has given.
As with so many gospel passages, we have no answer to “What happened next?" That is for each of us to pursue in prayer. I would like to follow Martha back to her kitchen where she stirs her pots with a more thoughtful energy. She doesn’t really need Mary here, but she does need to rethink what her much loved Lord has just said. She needs to reflect on her discipleship of the kitchen.
My imagination moves to the meal that appears on the table in Bethany that evening. It is an excellent one, up to the most exacting of Martha’s standards. She and Mary catch each other’s eyes with nods that say, “Mary, I’ll never nag you again to help me prepare vegetables. I can do that quite well, thank you. And I do love cooking for my friends.”
And Mary signals back, “Thanks. The Teacher has acknowledged my thirst to learn. Where might this lead?”
At that table Jesus passes a portion of warm bread to each of the male disciples. Have they learned something today? Will they remember this when he is gone? Is this event at least partially why the first Christian communities will gather for meals prepared by Marthas of other races and nationalities in groups and hosted by new Marys bearing the names of Lydia and Priscilla and Phoebe?
Much more than food has been shared in Bethany this day. A social and religious revolution has been inaugurated that still echoes today.
We need to hear Jesus saying to every one of us: What are your gifts? How are you using them? How critical are you of those who choose to be or to do “other”?
As our electronic world shrinks geography, the Marys among us cry to join their sisters everywhere. The Marthas long to be appreciated for what they have chosen.
We, in the western world, need to start by looking close to home where a new dialogue has begun about mothering and glass ceilings and “leaning back.” We need to learn to honor the choices that others make. The adventuresome Marys, who have broken through so many barriers in business and church, deserve to be commended for their courage, but they have to be careful not to be too critical of those who, for valid reasons, have chosen otherwise.
This could well be the time to do some stock-taking about the idea that women can indeed have it all. Some are questioning the price they pay or have paid for that “all”. Others have discovered that breaking through thrusts women, not into the fresh air, but simply into an old boys’ club, which was never the goal of even the most ardent pioneers.
This gospel continues to demand a response because its ramifications are nonending. So many of us play dual roles. Jesus would approve. Others of us have made unconventional choices. He’d like that too. Jesus asks us to recognize, in the spiritual world, the great truth we have already learned in the world of genetics. We are each put together differently.
The Martha-Mary challenge also crosses the male-female boundaries. We each have to seize the grace to be the person we are called to be, not the person society seems to dictate. In our world today, Nelson Mandela refused to be bound by the walls of Robben Island. He dreamed beyond its confines and found a world waiting for his message of freedom and forgiveness. He too chose a better part:
I, for one, will be forever grateful to Mary for having dared to attempt the different, and to Martha for having raised questions to the one person who had the answers. Many thanks, Martha and Mary, for being brave enough to be yourselves.
Sister Carol Perry is Resident Bible Scholar at Marble Collegiate Church. Via Odyssey Networks.