Martha and Mary – the Traditional Rendering
You may know the story of Martha and Mary. Jesus arrives at their home, and Martha acts as hostess. She busies herself performing unnamed tasks while her sister, Mary, sits at the Lord’s feet, listening to him speak. Distracted and overwhelmed, Martha complains that she is left by herself to do everything. She beseeches Jesus to tell her sister to get up and help.
As is his way, however, Jesus does not do what he is asked. Instead, he gently chides the woman, saying, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42 NRSV).
We are left wondering about this “one thing” Jesus speaks of and about “the better part.” Is contemplation best? What of the value of service? Is there a reason Luke tells this tale about women?
This last question has inspired scores of theologians, including many feminist ones, to consider the role of women as disciples, leaders, and followers, both during the days of the gospel and in modern times. Scripture rarely give us direct answers to much of anything, though, and this passage is no exception. How do we make sense of a story told in a different language to different people in a completely different time?
There are many ways to analyze a text. By looking at its form, its authorship, its redaction, the context of the chapter or gospel in which it sits, the frame of the culture and the times, the nuances of language, we try to put ourselves in the place of those who wrote and those who listened. Then we do the best we can.
Not Exactly a Feminist Treatise
So let’s start with a question. What is Luke saying about women?
If we look at the totality of his writings, it seems the evangelist has mixed feelings about women and their place in the church. The story of Mary and Martha is as confusing as any.
Is Jesus affirming Mary’s right to follow him as a disciple? Is he encouraging Martha to do as her sister and take a break, sit and learn. That Jesus is teaching women at all is radical during a time when only men could study the Torah. The revolutionary nature of this may be appealing, but women have longed been praised when they take on male roles, as long as they are careful not to overstep their bounds. As Amy Jill-Levine puts it, Mary’s part is “better” because “she is doing what ‘the men’ do even as she remains silent and submissive to her male teacher.”  Not exactly women’s emancipation.
Similarly, while beleaguered housewives may appreciate that Jesus seems to dismiss the value of housework, is this what we want? After all, doing so perpetuates our tendency to denigrate that which is typically done by women. Yet if we dismiss “women’s work” as unimportant and without value, we not only silence women’s voices in the way that Mary is silent and Martha is silenced by Jesus’s rebuke, but we demean that which is considered female or feminine.
Focusing Instead on Distraction and Worry
Thus it is with some relief that we realize that Jesus isn’t chastising Martha for working hard or serving others. Why would he? His entire ministry was about hospitality and care. As Scott F. Spencer points out in his book about women in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus came to Earth to live among the people “like one who serves” (Luke 22:27 NRSV).  He tended to the sick and the poor, and he bathed feet. Someone must prepare food and make beds and milk goats. Why would Jesus reprimand a person who is doing such things?
He wouldn’t. At least, not for the doing.
If we look at what he says, we see that he’s concerned, instead, with how Martha feels. She’s “worried and distracted.” I imagine she’s a bit resentful, as well. I would be if I were running around trying to get dinner cooked, keep the animals out of the way, haul in the water, set the table, sweep the dust from the floor, all while my sister, who lived in the same house and surely had as much responsibility for the well-being of her guests as I, reclined on the floor, bathing in the bliss of Jesus’s words. You can bet Martha thought Mary’s was the “better” part. Wouldn’t we all like to forget about the demands of our bodies for food and shelter and lounge around having fun?
But resentment, worry, and distraction get in the way of our ministry, even if that ministry is sweeping porches or chopping vegetables. Martha’s first responsibility, it seems, is to be as faithful as Mary. She should love the Lord with all her heart and soul and her neighbors, including her sister, as herself.
Alternatives to Worry
That’s what Spencer thinks. He suggests that Jesus is telling Martha to stop worrying about the details. They don’t need to eat right away. She can relax, let the chores wait. As Spencer puts it, “There’s plenty of feet and elbow room for all to sit down . . . in God’s household at Jesus’ feet”  Though Martha’s work of is important, so is Mary’s. All of us are called to do both types of service. If we can’t clean and listen to God at the same time, we can do them one after another, “donning the towel and apron one minute,” listening to God’s word the next.  We need not worry. We should all be like Mary, “contented, noncombative, and attentive.” 
Meister Eckhart also believes that Jesus is chiding Martha’s tendency to get distracted, to do too much. In A Companion to Meister Eckhart, Jeremiah Hackett explains how Eckhart’s interprets the “one thing” Jesus is talking to Martha about. “Whoever wants to be free of care and to be pure,” he quotes Eckhart as saying, “must have one thing, and that is detachment.” 
In other words, we must release our attachment to ego, to physical form. In truth, we are connected to the divine. We are one with the holy and with each other, so there is no place for resentment, no reason to worry. What happens in our lives is part of a drama that, ultimately, is as unreal as any theatrical performance. The important thing is our faith, our relationship to God.
This makes sense. If we could all be serene, connected to our Source, what a wonderful world we would live in. Rather than being distracted, Martha would take pleasure in the mindful execution of her tasks, pursuing them with equanimity. She would relish the joy her sister took in contemplation, but also honor her own worth as one who performs the work of the world. Both ways to be are important, and it matters not who does each.
In the real world, though, the one in which I live, and perhaps you also, it is not simple to be still and peaceful and content We are besieged by distractions in this day and age. In her book about robots and online technology, Sherry Turkle highlights some of the stresses we experience when we are constantly hooked up to something that buzzes or vibrates or lights up. Multiple times a day, someone tries to connect or has a request or seeks comfort from us in this online forum we have created.
Obsessed with our “networked life,” we can’t even drive or walk across the street without focusing on our phones, leading to accidents. Yet, as with any addiction, we cannot live unless hooked up to that ethereal, internet world.
We all need to listen as Mary does, to think about who we are and what we value, to process and express our feelings, to nurture intimate relationships. Yet technology, far from saving us time, has left us overwhelmed and distracted. We are always available.
“When is downtime?” Turkle asks. “When is stillness? The text-driven world of rapid response does not make self-reflection impossible, but does little to cultivate it.” 
A New Translation
Martha could probably relate. Clearly, she and we both need to breathe, slow down, put away the tools that take us from what is most important, namely our souls and our relationships.
But what if Martha is not cooking, but instead, is ministering to the poor, the sick, the confused, and the lonely? What if she is a deacon, leading and nurturing a church, as Mary Stromer Hanson suggests? Perhaps she feels overwhelmed because the need is never met.
Hanson comes to this insight about Martha’s role by looking carefully at the original Greek text. The translation I quoted above comes from the New Revised Standard Version. There are so many more. Hanson wrote out a translation herself, which is not uncommon for a scholar to do. In the way, she reached some unique conclusions about the Martha and Mary story.
Sitting at the Lord’s Feet
For instance, in the original Greek, there’s a word “kai” which many scholars leave untranslated. It means “also.” It’s there when Luke tells us that Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Along with the author of the King James and the World English bibles, Hanson includes that word in her translation. Thus, instead of saying that Martha “had a sister named Mary who sat” (Luke 10:39), Hanson’s text reads, that Martha’s sister Mary “also was one who sat at the Lord’s feet, always listening to his words.” 
If Mary did this, then, so did Martha. Additionally, according to Hanson, Mary didn’t just listen at that moment. She “always” listened. This listening had happened more than once. Both women doubtless enjoyed multiple moments when they sat and heard their Lord teach.
What does this mean?
In that day and age, sitting at the Lord’s feet was not a literal statement. As Hanson explains, it “is the traditional vocabulary of discipleship.”  This means that both sisters are disciples of Jesus, and both are doing the work of discipleship, or ministry. And Martha is finding that ministry overwhelming. As Hanson puts it, she is “torn apart concerning” her ministry, because there is so much of it. The need never ends.
With Jesus there before her, Martha thinks perhaps she can use him to find some relief. She begs him to tell her sister to stop leaving her to minister alone.
Is this because Mary is there, lounging and listening?
Hanson believes that nothing in the text, not even the NRSV text, indicates that Mary is there at all. She says nothing, though Martha is clearly upset with her. If she’s in the room with her, you’d expect her to defend herself.
So where is she?
According to Hanson, and some other scholars such as Mary Rose D’Angelo and Christopher Hutson , Mary is off doing the ministry to which Jesus called her. She is in some other village, spreading the gospel. But Martha wants her to come home. Perhaps she misses her. Maybe she’s worried about Mary’s safety. She could just want to control her sister. Or maybe she really does find the ministry too hard to handle by herself. Who knows what all lies under Martha’s wish that her sister would return to her?
Living Out Our Own Calling
Whatever her desire, Jesus reminds her that it’s not up to her to dictate her sister’s life. Mary “has chosen good and it will not be taken from her,” as Hanson translates his words.  Unlike the NRSV, which says “Mary has chosen the better part,” Hanson and others, such as those who wrote the World English Bible and the American Standard Version, say that Mary’s part is “good.” It is not better than Martha’s, nor is it worse.
We are all called to work that has meaning and purpose of some kind. Perhaps it’s not a job, but even small tasks can be important and make a difference to one individual, if not more. As in the story by Loren Eiseley that I shared in another column, one in which a young man saves the life of one sea star after another, the smallest gestures can matter. The young man might not have saved the world, but we are not called to do this. We are called to do what we can with the gifts that we have.
To Do One Thing
Thus, Martha is called to make a difference to one person at a time. She cannot fix all the needs, not even within her own community, her own church.
“There is need of only one thing,” Jesus says.
What is that?
I suspect Jesus means that whatever is before us is the “one thing.” The Greek is actually more complex. It might be translated as, “But few things are necessary, or only one” (Luke 10:42 Lexham English Bible). Martha desperately wants to fix all the problems she sees, care for everyone who is confused or ill. No wonder she is, as Hanson translates it, “anxious and agitated.” 
Jesus is trying to help her see that most of what she thinks must be done is actually not necessary. Yet there is the one thing, the thing in front of us, that must be attended to. If we are to tend to the “one thing,” we must slow down, take time to feel and to process, and focus on what is there in front of us.
Jesus Shows us How to Be Fully Present
Early in the Gospel of John, Jesus is walking down the street when John the Baptist sees him and points him out to two of his own disciples. Curious, the men follow Jesus, who turns and says to them, “What are you looking for?”
They ask him, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
Jesus invites them to “[c]ome and see” (John 1:25-29).
Beverly Beam understands this to be Jesus’ way of ministering in the moment. Surely he was not just strolling through the neighborhood, she explains. He was on his way somewhere, for some purpose. Yet when these two men came to him, he dropped everything to be with them and only them. They were his “one thing.”
In his dedication to what was needful in the moment, Jesus brought the young men home with him, where they remained for the entire day. In the end, they became his disciples.
If Jesus had brushed them off saying he was in a hurry, he would have lost them. Even if he had engaged them for a few moment, they would not have seen in him what was so precious that they would give up everything to follow him. By being present only to these two at this moment in time, Jesus convinced them that he was worthy of their worship.
There Is Always More to Do
Jesus tells Martha that her task is not to feed, preach, or heal. Nor is it to cook or sweep. Her task, and ours, is to be fully present to each person in each moment. When he is with her, then, her task is not to be with Mary who is off doing something else, but to bring her mind to what is before her. Her task is to be with Jesus.
“You will always have the poor with you,” Jesus tells his disciples when they complain about the costly oil “a woman” pours on his head, “but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11).
Yes, the money spent on that oil could have been spent on the poor. The time we spend in contemplation could be spent healing, building, or fixing problems. When we are with one person, we are not with another. Yet we cannot do it all. To wear ourselves out trying helps no one.
Mary chose the good part, but so did Martha. Mary’s part will not be taken from her; no more will Martha’s. Perhaps Mary understands how to fulfill her obligations without stressing. Jesus is trying to help Martha find such serenity, as well.
To “sit at the Lord’s feet” is hard work. It takes dedication, discipline, and faith. Some days will feel gratifying and fulfilling; others will seem to have been wasted. No matter what we do, more is needed. Yet though many things are necessary, only one is needful right now. Perhaps we are called to pick up a broom, to bind a wound, to hug a child, to sing to the people, or to pray. Whatever our task is, and whoever we are with, our work is to be fully there.
In faith and fondness,
- Levine, Amy-Jill, “Introduction,” Amy-Jill Levine, ed., A Feminist Companion to Luke, 1-22, 17.
- Spencer, F. Scott. Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows : Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013, 109.
- Ibid 120.
- Ibid 110.
- Ibid 109.
- Hackett, Jeremiah, A Companion to Meister Eckhart, Leiden: BRILL, 2014, 695.
- Turkle, Sherry, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor Audio, 2014, Part 10 – Part 11 – Chapter 9.
- This article includes Hanson’s translation: Mattison, Mark M., “A New View of Mary and Martha,” Christian Feminism Today, 2015, https://eewc.com/new-view-mary-martha/, accessed 2/1/19.
- Hanson, Mary Stromer, “Mary of Bethany: Her Leadership Uncovered,” Mary’s Sword, November 10, 2015, https://stromerhanson.blogspot.com/2015/11/mary-of-bethany-her-leadership-uncovered.html, accessed 2/1/19.
- Mary Rose D’Angelo, “Women in Luke-Acts: A Redactional View,” JBL 109 (1990): 454-455. and Christopher R. Hutson, “Martha’s Choice: A Pastorally Sensitive Reading of Luke 10:38-42” Restoration Quarterly 45 no 3 2003 139-150.
Photo Johannes Vermeer “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” [Public domain]
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved