Not Your Mother’s Mary and Martha!
Cliff Notes Version of my New Perspective on Mary and Martha
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.
Illustration by Lisa Guinther
Mary and Martha for ALL
Mary and Martha of Luke 10:38-42 are intended to teach both women and men, in all times and places. Have you ever thought about how this story applies to someone who has no house, no table, or a stocked pantry? Is it realistic to assume that all readers have adequate time, income, and control over their own lives to apply this text as it has been traditionally understood?
We all bring our presuppositions, environment, and previous experiences into understanding a text. We read Luke 10:38-42—all biblical texts—with an affluent, 21st century hermeneutic. If you are holding this book in your hands, then you can read English and you have funds to buy a book or a computer. We mistakenly think that all people, everywhere, in all times and places understand the text as we do.
Imagine that you do not have electricity for a lamp to enable reading after the evening is dark, appropriate reading glasses, and a chair in a quiet environment with some time to reflect. In addition, someone—the government, your owner, or a male relative— threatens to take away your Bible and Christian literature. Perhaps, as a woman, you could be punished for even learning to read. Is this person going to gain the same application from the story of Mary and Martha?
A woman with a hungry family who hears this story may lament, “Martha has a kitchen, she has food to share, and she can entertain a guest, or perhaps even treat friends to a banquet. I look at my hungry children and I wonder if I would even be willing to share the last crumbs in my pocket with Jesus.”
Luke 10:38-42 as traditionally taught is very discouraging for this woman. “Those Christians who know a lot, who have studied, they are the ones that delight the Lord and are doing his will.” She imagines that her life would be better if she could please God by studying his Bible and she longs to be more knowledgeable. She resigns herself to being lessor like Martha because her days are spent in grueling work conditions. Didn’t he say that “Mary had chosen the best part?” This woman prays, “Forgive me for being a lessor disciple, help me learn more somehow.”
We must urgently rethink the Mary and Martha story. It has been interpreted and preached for centuries by men who have the resources to imagine Martha in a well-stocked kitchen. The same commentators cubbyhole women in traditional women’s work; if it involves two sisters, then of course they are in conflict. One must be a “winner” and one a “loser” to make the story preach.
In addition, in the time of the first recorded interpretations, the spiritual life was considered superior to the practical life. Gnostic and Platonic philosophy penetrated theology and carried into Christian thought. The world was divided between weak and strong, men and women, good and bad. The fleshly life was bad, the life of the mind was good. The theologians of the time naturally turned to a “good” woman, “bad” woman understanding of Mary and Martha. Through the centuries, the most prevalent lesson from Mary & Martha was: Mary got it right, Martha got it wrong; be more like the contemplative Mary, less like the too busy Mary.
The end result of this flawed understanding is that the student of Luke 10:38-42 must resolve to do better. She must get up earlier, short-change less important activities, and carve out some time to study the Bible. We of the affluent hermeneutic can afford to do this. Most of us probably can find some time to study, study more in-depth, learn Hebrew and Greek. Soon more is not enough. The learning of all things biblical never stops and we let it take over our libraries. This can become idolatrous in itself. We imagine we are gaining God’s favor by studying ever more.
Now rethink the text of Luke 10:38-42. Both Mary and Martha are known as willing and gifted students, sitting at the feet of Jesus, hearing every word. The text in Greek can indeed be translated to legitimately say this. On the day of Jesus visit, Martha is at home by herself frantic about her sister, who is gone. She doesn’t know where Mary went, but she knows Jesus knows. She asks Jesus forcibly, “Tell her therefore, that she may give me a hand with the work.” The work that is overwhelming her is diaconal work in the village. She is ministering to the new Jesus followers. She is burnt-out.
Now the “right” sister and “less-right” sister scenario is gone. The story is about two female disciples, fulfilling their individual callings as they are gifted. One is taking care of the sick, orphans, new believers, or whatever is required in a first century Jewish village. The other is evangelizing in the countryside with Jesus. The spiritual is not preferred above the practical. Accurate to the Greek text, Jesus actually says, “Mary has chosen good and it will not be taken from her.”
Martha is still the sister that needs the “attitude adjustment,” but in a far more understandable sense. She wants her sister home, she wants Jesus to make it happen. But Jesus tells her that Mary is doing her Kingdom work where she is and he is not going to send her home.
Now, how does this story sound different to the woman who has little control over her schedule, or even her life? She can be reassured that whatever work she must do during her long day, she does not have to feel guilty and pressured to find yet more time to study. How does this woman advance in her knowledge? Praise God, the Spirit has his ways! She may meet the right friends who can converse with her about the gospel while doing field work, she may find a radio program, she may observe the wonders of nature while getting water and praise God. She does not have to be burdened with trying to be a “Mary.”
Mary and Martha Served Twice! by Mary Stromer Hanson
Mary and Martha twice served me a lifesaver in a time when I was sinking. The first time was long ago. There was a decade in my life when I would take cover in the quiet of my basement to cry my eyes out. Alone in the dark, I would not disturb my sleeping family. The messages restricting women to limited roles, coming from my lifelong church, were devouring my heart. I raged against God for many nights until I finally climbed back upstairs to fall asleep exhausted.
I struggled like Jacob wrestling between what I knew in my Spirit-informed heart and what my current church was telling me. The questions poured out: God, you created me, and you do not make junk; why am I reduced to anatomical functions in the church? You gave me a brain that I cannot use? This was strictly between me and God, and the church as I knew it then. My voice was not valued, my ideas were not sought.
One late hour, after much pleading with God, a revelation descended from the dusty rafters of the basement. A Bible story occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of for years. Jesus valued female learners in Luke 10:38-42. This was a miracle, Jesus encouraged Mary to learn! My name is Mary. The verses spoke directly to me! It brought me huge relief. Jesus valued her brain, not just her domestic or reproductive abilities. This was my first serving courtesy Mary and Martha.
Many years later Mary and Martha again served me a new story. Now I had the time to pursue my life-long passion to study in seminary. I very much remembered the season of cooking, cleaning, and the kids’ school activities, while my Bible gathered dust. According to my understanding of Luke 10:38-42, sitting at his feet was the activity Jesus valued most. Had I been negligent in those days when I wasn’t studying regularly? I remembered the nights I prayed cursorily, “God, please forgive me for being “a lessor disciple,” and promptly fell asleep.
I revisited Mary and Martha again, bringing with me a lifetime of experiences walking with Christians. The old questions regularly appeared in women’s discussion groups. “Are you a Mary or Martha?” This story has not made much progress over the years! Was this really a matter that warranted so much impassioned discussion? The conclusion was always the same: Be more Mary, but Martha cares are necessary. The group conclusions lie uneasy on everyone’s mind.
Praise the Holy Spirit who regularly to enlighten! Even though I could now indulge in my “Mary” side and study the Bible in seminary, I still had a soft spot for Martha. Like most of the population, women and men, long days are spent doing very necessary, but unappreciated work. Are they really “lessor” disciples?
Several new insights occurred to me. A small word in the Greek has been left untranslated and another small word has another valid translation. The result (10:39), “and this woman had a sister named Mary who also was one who always sat at the feet of the Lord listening to his word.” The Greek word used for “served” can mean the same range of activities as those of a deacon, for instance Phoebe (Romans 16), not necessarily only serving food. When Jesus seems to favor Mary’s choice, the grammar indicates “good,” not necessarily “better” or “the best.” What a relief when I found that the choice between the activities of the two sisters does not have to be made; one being superior, the other warranting disapproval!
Putting together many pieces of a puzzle, a whole new story of Mary and Martha came together. I found no evidence in the text that Mary is on the premises that day of Jesus’ visit. She never speaks nor defends herself because she is absent, following Jesus ministering in the countryside. Indeed, Martha is overwhelmed, but not with kitchen work. She may be concerned about her sister who frequently leaves her to follow Jesus in risky activities. She begs Jesus, “Tell her therefore, that she may give me a hand.” A hand with what? Not kitchen work, but help with the many demands put upon her by the local circle of Jesus followers. She is the first recorded burned-out preacher. She is doing the work which elsewhere describes the work of a deacon, ministering in her village, serving the new believers.
I found that Mary and Martha were both active leaders pursuing their callings and gifts. One disciples in her community, the other ministering in the countryside with Jesus. They are both not only learning from Jesus, but also practicing and preaching the results of their study and serving the new Jesus followers in every way possible. With this realization, the story is totally new with much greater lessons.
The two “servings” of Mary and Martha have served me well. I have found peace with the Mary and Martha dilemma. One is not more practical than the other. One is not more spiritual than the other. Both have chosen “good” and are following their calls. There is no “lessor” disciple.
Egalitarianism is an investment in future generations of women:
A Secondary Issue?
In a dream, I pounded with bloodied fists on a shiny black monolith of granite. I begged to get inside; my anguished reflection on the surface was the only response. This scene is as clear as a vision and I remember it like yesterday. I could not make this up.
I came to consciousness in a panic; I realized this was the church. My efforts to gain access, recognition, and acceptance were met with silence.
How did I get into this dream? I reminisce back several decades—no spring chicken speaking here—to my childhood in the 1950s rural Midwest. In a little wooden church surrounded by cornfields, the ritual of communion service clarified the status of all individuals. Common cup Lord’s Supper was considered more biblical. First, the oldest men hobbled to the front of the church. After they all sipped from the one cup—alcohol killed the germs—they were replaced with the young men, including the most recent confirmands. When they sat down, then the older women were served, and then finally the young women. Our immune systems were the strongest!
Any sermon text that referred to young women was turned into a warning. Acts 21 became a sermon about how difficult it was for Phillip to maintain his daughters in a virgin state. Matthew 25 earned the remark, “Notice that these women were virgins” as the preacher stared at us. I heard a sermon on the raising of the daughter of Jairus. I was furious that the men in the story were the total topic of interest, and nothing was mentioned about the girl raised from the dead. That was the beginning of a book I wrote many years later, Bold Girls of the Bible. Remembering my childhood, I noted it would be so empowering for girls to see themselves in the Bible.
No women were ever visible in front of the church. I was allowed to play the organ, and I played it loud and fast! Confirmation class warranted the frequent reminder the women always had to have a “head.” First, it was our father, then our husband. If widowed, our head was our oldest son. If all else failed, I am sure there was a solution. No “headless” women were allowed! . I felt utter indignation about this teaching. I could certainly read the King James version, but I knew this is not what God meant. I just knew it. I never bought the package.
The boys got “the talk” but not the girls. “The talk” was encouragement to consider a call to ministry. Girls received no calls. If we thought we did, it was not from the Spirit. There were no options for girls at a seminary— well maybe for students’ wives. I left the week after high school graduation for a large state university and majored in something else. I also did not expect any wisdom from above.
The struggle became intense. It is often repeated: the women’s issues are secondary, not really of primary importance—certainly not a matter of salvation. Reconsider! I became deeply depressed. I raged against God for many sleepless nights. If the God I loved created me so defective, and then despised me for it, I did not need this God. One summer day I seriously considered driving off the interstate into a barrier. Only the thought that my kids would be left waiting for me to pick them up kept me from doing it.
My healing journey began in a large secular bookstore on the shelf labeled “Feminist Theology.” This was forbidden territory! I furtively read Groothuis, Kroeger, Grenz, Michelson, Bilezikian, Sayers, and other names from the mid-nineties. These well-worn books remain in an honored space on my shelf. I bless the day a new acquaintance, a visitor in yet another patriarchal church, whispered to me the name of a group in Minneapolis. I was not alone! This was before the www.com world, so I actually had to call the CBE office and ask for a catalog.
One Sunday I finally mustered the courage to break all ties with my past. I played the final amen of the doxology, slammed the piano lid down, and exited after hearing a sermon on I Cor. 14. My family and I joined the “liberal, main-line church a few blocks away.” I tell them about my past life, and they ask what century I am talking about.
What has happened to the foreboding black monolith? Well, it reflects my backside now. I have turned around and ran far away. But, lasting repercussions remain. I long for the opportunities, mentoring, and role-models that men routinely take for granted. I fight self-doubt and struggle for enough self-confidence to face new challenges. I triple edit myself before saying anything, then miss the opportunity.
At a mature age, I completed a seminary degree in Biblical Studies to thoroughly understand the issues and more effectively face the opposition. I grieve for the half of the population that is rendered so much less than what they are created to be. I will spend the rest of my life helping women recover from the oppression of this false teaching.
Do not agree that “women’s issues” in the church are a secondary matter. To women it is truly a matter of life, spirit, and soul.