Martha & Mary

First of all, please bear with me - we’re going to need to dig into some Greek - but don’t be worried, because this isn’t particularly difficult. The story of Martha and Mary is found in Luke 10.

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.
39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.
40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,
42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Where does this take place? Bethany, where Martha and Mary lived, is a village on the southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, a couple of miles from Jerusalem. Tradition has Lazarus living there with them too.

When does it happen? Who knows really? In Luke, it’s some time after Jesus sends out the seventy-two - which might be significant? It seems to have happened right in the middle of Jesus’ period of active ministry.

What (happens in a nutshell)? It appears to be a story of domestic life, doesn’t it? I can’t call it ‘domestic bliss’ because it appears there’s conflict in the ‘happy home’. I’ve always wondered why the story is included - it’s very familiar, but it doesn’t seem to ‘do’ anything or make any points, other than slightly vague ones about it being better to listen to Jesus than do chores, and that a woman’s place is clearly in the home.

Anyway, let’s get stuck in, and unpack this story in a different way. 

First of all, Martha alone receives Jesus into her (or their?) home. At this point, it’s not clear where Mary is.

And then we get into the first ‘twisting’ of the interpretation.

In each version of the Greek I’ve looked at, the translation of verse 39 is better rendered 

She had a sister called Mary, who also (καὶ) sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.

That’s odd - and very much ‘at odds’ with the traditional view of the story - the implication of the (correct?) translation is that Martha is sitting at Jesus’ feet, alongside Mary (so then, what’s the point of the story? - it all seems to unravel once you stick that ‘also’ back in). 

But after some digging around, it seems that actually we may actually be dealing with a figure of speech; a euphemism; a piece of common vernacular of the time: ‘sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said’ probably doesn’t actually mean she was literally, physically, sitting there - it seems to mean that she was a disciple.

Of course, disciples were male; μαθητής (mathetes) is a masculine noun so there’s no way to talk about a female disciple! It’s a bit like trying to describe me, in my role as, erm, ‘a homemaker’ in that what I do is like a housewife - but because housewife is a feminine noun, you can’t use it to describe me! But anyway, it’s saying she was like a disciple - one of those who sat around a teacher’s feet, listening and learning from him! The ‘also’ means they were both Jesus’ disciples. And we still don’t really know where Mary was at this particular time! And, if we’re interpreting ‘sat at the Lord’s feet’ correctly then it’s clear that Martha was actually involved in active ministry as a ‘disciple’. 

If we look at verse 40, in most English versions we read something like 

...Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made 

which implies she was cooking or some such ‘hospitable’ act - because ‘they’ had an important visitor (i.e. Jesus). That’s a pretty blatant distortion of the Greek. What it says is:

Μάρθα περιεσπᾶτο περὶ πολλὴν διακονίαν
Martha periespato peri pollén diakonian
Martha (was) greatly troubled by much ministry.



Practically everywhere else in the New Testament, διακονίαν is translated as meaning ministry. Nineteen times it’s rendered ‘ministry', as opposed to once for ‘preparations' - it’s one of several meanings, including ministering,  helping, serving, preparing - it’s where our word ‘deacon’ derives from - but here, where it involves a woman, it’s rendered ‘preparations’ to convince us that this is a domestic story and women don’t do ‘ministry’... Why translate it differently (unless you’re being sexist!)? This is potentially a serious distortion of the meaning!! I think it’s really saying Martha is active in ministry, as one of Jesus’ disciples. And she’s stressed out by it - anyway that’s what she says she’s upset about!

So she ἐπιστᾶσα (epistasa - confronts) Jesus. She complains, she takes Him to task. No shrinking violet this lady! And she says:

“Lord, does it not concern you that my sister has κατέλειπεν (kateleipen - physically left, or abandoned, me and gone elsewhere) alone to διακονίαν (diakonian - serve/minister)?"

So it seems to me it’s not that Mary isn’t helping Martha, and is instead sitting listening to Jesus - NO! She’s actually left home, and is pursuing her calling as a disciple somewhere else, leaving Martha with the stress of ministering to the community where they live!! And Martha, consequently, is overtired and stressed out - and she wants Jesus to εἰπὲ (eipč - speak, tell, order) Mary to (return home and) help her!!

This is where it becomes, as is often the way when Jesus gets involved, amazing. Because Jesus answers her saying, 

“Martha, Martha. You are μεριμνᾷς (merimnas - anxious to the point of falling apart) and θορυβάζῃ (thorybazé - panicking) about πολλά (pollá - everything).”

Being Jesus, he sees what’s really going on - why Martha is in such a state. Martha has confronted Jesus and told Him that she’s overburdened by her ministry, but he sees through this, into her heart, and names all the real stress and anxiety which is tearing her apart and ruining her mental well-being.

And he tells her, “What Mary has chosen is a good portion, and it will not be taken from her.” 

This is where the myth of Mary physically sitting at the feet of Jesus becomes such a problem. I don’t think she's sitting at his feet at all (in the physical sense): she is a woman out doing a disciple’s work alongside men in a world that is not made for women. It’s her absence, not her implied laziness (or studiousness?), which is what has Martha agitated. The implication is that Jesus is impressed that Mary is out doing this work, and he’s certainly not going to stop her.

Here’s the thing. I’m not sure (as I’m sure Jesus wasn’t) that Martha’s burden of ministry is too much for her - that’s a kind of ‘front’ she’s presenting. Really, I think, she’s driving herself daft with worry over her sister who has gone away (remember, this is not really normal in their society). Maybe there’s some envy stirred into the mix - Martha has to stay at home and minister to the neighbours while Mary is off with the lads doing ‘men’s work’ ministering in the countryside... Perhaps she (with Lazarus making a pair?) was one of the seventy-two?

I think Martha wants her sister safe home. 

But Jesus tells her not to worry about Mary, because Mary is well-suited to the ministry she’s doing, and can take care of herself. 

So I think there are two absolutely critical things happening here. 

He’s helping Martha to be Martha, as she’s meant to be.

He’s absolutely not telling Martha to be more like Mary - which is how this is usually interpreted by preachers - he’s really telling Martha to let Mary be Mary!!

The really cool thing about the sisters is that they’re pioneers - they’re almost the first apostles - doing ‘ministry’ in their own ways, as disciples of Jesus...

So, this story (which has been abused to help justify the ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ thing for the best (or worst?) part of 2,000 years?) is really about women taking on ‘male’ roles and doing them well. I think, far from portraying a ‘role-model’ of women as domestic goddesses, it’s doing the exact opposite - it’s about Jesus affirming women’s ministry… And that’s why the story was included in the first place.

Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2021