Seeking the Better Part

The story of Mary and Martha in Luke's gospel is a familiar one to all Christians. Most Christians today associate Martha with women's traditional roles in the church: Cooking and serving food, caring for altar linens, and the like. Since the last thing most churches want is for women to grow restive and refuse to perform these vital tasks in church life, many sermons subtly subvert this text by defending the equal importance of Martha's roles. Thus they do exactly what the text emphatically says is not to be done: taking away from Mary the "better part."

Interestingly enough, the classical church tradition did not associate Mary and Martha with roles specific to women, but rather connected them with the two stages of Christian life, which were seen as including both men and women. Martha was seen as representing the active life, the life of service, while Mary represented the contemplative life of study and prayer. The text was used to recommend both modes of life to all Christians, but suggesting that the contemplative life was the higher and better one.

What was the original context of this text in the life of the early church? What was the gospel writer seeking to say to his church by preserving this particular story?

THE FIGURES OF MARY, Martha, and their brother Lazarus appear in a number of gospel stories. Their home in Bethany lay directly behind the Mount of Olives, and Jesus seemed to have stayed there often when he was in the Jerusalem area.

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Sojourners Magazine November 1992
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