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.
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.