Mary and Martha: A Story About God’s Radical Hospitality

In honor of International Women’s Day, uber-blogger Julie Clawson has invited faith bloggers to post something about the impact women in the Bible have had on the kingdom…on each one of us.
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The story of Mary and Martha that is told in Luke 10:38-42 has often been a problem for me.

The story begins with Jesus and 72 of his male disciples entering a village where a woman named Martha lives and has a home. Luke tells us that Martha opens up her home to Jesus and his companions; and then at some point becomes irritated with her sister, Mary, for sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to what he is saying instead of helping with all of the preparations that need to be made for this large group of men. Martha is so put out by the situation that she goes to Jesus and says to him “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (which, btw, seems like a perfectly reasonable request to me) And Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Do what?? What in the heck was Jesus thinking? Why didn’t he tell Mary to get up off her lazy you know what and get in there and help Martha? Is Jesus exalting Mary over Martha? Does he mean it is better to be contemplative than to be actively serving? That doesn’t exactly jive with some of the other stuff that he has said about being a servant!

At this point, someone usually teaches a lesson about how important it is not to get so busy that we forget to spend quiet, contemplative time with Jesus. And while I think that is a good lesson I have a feeling we may be missing the point of what Jesus is talking about.

You see, I think what has to be addressed is that both Jesus and Mary were committing a social taboo. Women could serve men, but it was inappropriate for them to join in with the guys the way that Mary was doing. Women weren’t supposed to be taught by Rabbis or sit in the room with a bunch of men discussing the Torah. So I think it would be a logical assumption to think the people hearing this story would have been much more shocked about Mary assuming the role of a religious disciple than her not helping in the kitchen…and that is what I think Jesus was referring to.

I believe, as usual, Jesus was turning things upside down and inside out. Just like that, Jesus liberates Mary from her socially defined status of inferiority and marginalization. And by following Jesus, not only was Mary transformed, but the world she inhabited was transformed.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this was just about women’s rights. I believe it was bigger than that. It seems that through Mary, Jesus is denouncing social, political and religious structures that do not practice God’s radical hospitality – the sort of hospitality that overcomes injustice and is grounded in love and mercy and compassion. I think Jesus was saying Mary had boldly chosen to take hold of this justice he had offered to her by allowing her to join him and his disciples, the justice was hers now and he would not take it away from her. I would even go so far as to say Martha saw what was going on and wasn’t being honest with Jesus about what was so upsetting to her – perhaps she wasn’t even aware of what was causing all the anxiety she was feeling. Of course Jesus obviously knew what was upsetting Martha and that explains why he answered her the way he did. He knew Martha was being the voice of the status quo that resists change, even “just” change.

The lesson in Luke 10:38-42 is not that reading the bible or praying is superior to cooking a meal or cleaning house. The lesson is that as followers of Jesus we are not only invited to partake of God’s radical hospitality but we are called to practice it by seeking justice for those in the margins, challenging discrimination wherever we see it and transforming our relationships so that they reflect the love of Christ.

PLEASE NOTE:  After I wrote this someone made me aware that there were probably some women among the 72 disciples mentioned at the beginning of the story.  That is certainly possible as Jesus was known for going against the norm.  Although that piece of info is important it does not mean that it was common or socially acceptable for women to do such things.

Check out the other participants in this synchroblog:

Julie Clawson on the God who sees
Steve Hayes on St. Theodora the Iconodule
Sonja Andrews on Aunt Jemima
Sensuous Wife on a single mom in the Bible
Minnowspeaks on celebrating women
Michelle Van Loon on the persistant widow
Lyn Hallewell on women who walked with God
Heather on the strength of biblical women
Shawna Atteberry on the Daughter of Mary Magdalene
Christine Sine on women who impacted her life
Susan Barnes on Tamar, Ruth, and Mary
Kathy Escobar on standing up for nameless and voiceless women
Ellen Haroutunian on out from under the veil
Liz Dyer on Mary and Martha
Bethany Stedman on Shiphrah and Puah
Dan Brennan on Mary Magdalene
Jessica Schafer on Bathsheba
Eugene Cho on Lydia
Laura sorts through what she knows about women in the Bible
Miz Melly preached on the woman at the well
AJ Schwanz on women’s work</a?
Pam Hogeweide on
teenage girls changing the world
Teresa on the women Paul didn’t hate
Helen on Esther
Happy on Abigail
Mark Baker-Wright on telling stories
Robin M. on Eve
Alan Knox is thankful for the women who served God
Lainie Peterson on the unnamed concubine
Mike Clawson on cultural norms in the early church
Krista on serving God
Bob Carlton on Barbie as Icon
Jan Edmiston preached on the unnamed concubine
Deb on her namesake – Deborah
Makeesha on empowering women
Kate on Esther
Doreen Mannion on Deborah
Patrick Oden on Rahab
Scot McKnight on Junia
Beth Patterson on Esther

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61 thoughts on “Mary and Martha: A Story About God’s Radical Hospitality

  1. stevenSeeksTruth

    A LOT of wisdom in that posting Grace, thank you. The time you took to follow up was gracious of you and appreciated. Food for prayerful consideration.

    Reply
  2. gracerules Post author

    StevenSeeksTruth – I think the danger is taking this text in isolation – if you read all of scripture you begin to get the whole picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. For example in the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus appears to be telling the lawyer that a disciple of Christ, a follower of God will go and do. It is not enough to simply love God. We must also serve others. And yet in our text we precisely see Martha going about, doing various things and Jesus tells her that doing those things are not important, that the thing of central importance is to sit and listen. Which is it?

    It is both. Jesus is neither pleased with those who are all action but no contemplation, nor those who are all contemplation with no action. For those who are all action but no contemplation will not be rooted in a sense of purpose for their actions. Likewise, those who are all contemplation with no action will have no purpose for their contemplation. There is a time to go and do, and there is a time to listen and reflect – we are not to neglect one for the other – a balance is needed. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment.

    I also think we have to take into consideration that Jesus was physically present and it was a very unique opportunity to sit before his teachings AND there was the bigger issue of Jesus denouncing social, political and religious structures that might exclude women.

    From what you have shared it would appear that your wife is neglecting one thing for the other and needs some balance. If you haven’t spoken to her about it she may not even be aware that she is neglecting her share of the chores and more importantly, that she is neglecting you.

    (There have been responses to this post indicating some disagreement about whether it would have been taboo for Mary to sit at the feet of Jesus as he taught. Here are a few things that give us reason to believe that it would have been socially and politically unacceptable:
    The Mishnah includes some pretty cynical thoughts about women: “May the words of the Torah be burned, they should not be handed over to women.”[8] Rabbi Eliezer (c. AD 90) said, “If a man gives his daughter knowledge of the Law it is as though he taught her lechery.”[9]. Jeremias explains, “Of the two sections of the synagogue mentioned in the law of Augustus, sabbateion and andron (Josephus, Antiquities 16.164), the first, where the liturgical service took place, was open to women too; but the other part, given over to the scribes’ teaching, was open only to men and boys as the name suggests.”[10] )

    Reply
  3. StevenSeeksTruth

    I can’t deny that this story is one of the most troubling to me in the Bible.

    It quite honestly bothers me that Martha’s request was a reasonable one and that her work was multiplied even more by the lack of Mary’s assistance. I’m certain after the work had been done Martha would have also LOVED to enjoy time to learn from Jesus and to sit at His feet.. but with one helper absent, the work load was even more critical.

    I can’t even comprehend having 72 house guests that needed to have meals prepared, not to mention the multitude of other chores that would be necessary to host a group of that size. Yet instead of helping, Mary enjoyed the presence of Jesus.. like a guest.

    Prior to marriage I had dozens, perhaps hundreds of conversations with my wife about her definition of a help meet. I had been successful and knew God had called me to be a financial arm and helper to ministry. I help pay ministry bills, so they can concentrate on spreading His message!! That requires an extreme dedication to business and one that would also require the intimate assistance of a wife. I had dated well but had been cautious not to marry until I had found a true partner in my purpose and what I feel was and is a mandate from the Lord.

    I’m sorry to say, my wife has become a Mary and it is a daily struggle to not criticize her and/or resent the Lord for permitting it. I think of the Martha chide several times per day as I purchase and prepare ALL the food for our home (research recipes etc), do 99% of all the laundry, clean, manage the household so my wife can spend time in her prayer closet studying and reading and yes, also praying. I also have a part time housekeeper and errand person that I have had to hire to help. My wife does work about 20 hours per week and does pay the household accounts but that is less than 10% of what’s necessary. During her 8 hours sleep the Lord gives her dreams and meanwhile I get 4 hours sleep (5 MAX) and have to get right back to work to make up the slack. HOW COULD I DARE criticize her after what the Lord told Martha.. Yet, still things must be done and I have been forced to sacrifice my quiet time (as I’m sure Martha would have also enjoyed) and my mandate from Him in business to also take care of the home (we had no children, THANK GOD!!!!).

    When I finally collapse at night from the day’s work (my job in addition to the many responsibilities of running a well managed home) I turn on the TV to escape.. and I can’t deny I am silently angry that I have permitted this to happen. Yet, since the scriptures CLEARLY admonish Martha and praise Mary, I silently carry on. I wish I could say i’m doing it as unto the Lord but after 18 years I can’t deny that I struggle with this Bible Story… a lot.

    Any thoughts are welcome and appreciated. Thanking you in advance for your prayers and advice.. or admonishment as the case may be.

    Reply
    1. gracerules Post author

      StevenSeeksTruth – Wow – that sounds like an unbearable situation. I don’t think the story of Mary and Martha supports anyone neglecting their responsibilities and I think the story is misinterpreted when it is used that way. It sounds like it is time to have a talk with your wife – if that doesn’t help then let her do her own laundry, buy her own food and cook her own meals. Maybe if you don’t enable her she won’t continue the behaviour.

      Reply
      1. stevenSeeksTruth

        thank you for your post, GraceRules.

        This Bible story is not my wife’s defense of her actions.. in fact, i don’t mention the inequity until i have it straight from the Lord that i am not pulling her away from a higher pursuit, as Martha attempted to do. PERSONALLY i think Martha had a verrry valid position in the Bible so i need to be careful here that the Lord doesn’t expect me to carry the load, as He expected from Martha. I hear others say they welcome the chastisement of the Lord, personally i have my hands full without a chastisement to boot!!

        Isn’t this exactly what Mary did.. neglected (in my view) her hosting responsibilities to spend time loving on and learning from Jesus?

        As Martha’s sister, Mary was clearly there to help co-host the large group and but left the work for her sister and the others while she spent time at the feet of our Lord. It seems from the story that Mary chose right but unfortunately from Martha’s (and my) perspective the tasks at hand still need to be completed so the large group could eat!

        Isn’t that also what happened in the Bible.. Martha was chided for asking Mary to help fulfill her responsibility or commitment?

        Even though Mary was Martha’s sister (and obviously not married as in my case) she was clearly part of the hosting family and i believe shared a large (perhaps equal) responsibility in the hosting preparations. Since Jesus was/is all knowing He obviously knew that.. yet still told Martha to do it alone (or with the other servants or helpers).

        Believe me i am not trying to be thick headed nor ignorant to the deeper lessons of scripture but it seems if anything Martha’s situation and need for help was much worse than mine is.. yet she was clearly scolded for being so earthly.

        i am sincerely open if you feel i am not seeing something straight.. believe me i have spent a lot of time prayerfully pouring over this story in the Bible to understand it.

        Blessings for your interest.

        Reply
  4. Jill Alvarado

    It seems Martha was serving Jesus in a very traditional way by being a hostess and preparing food and making him (and other disciple guests?) comfortable. Mary was also serving Him by listening to His words. I think perhaps he reproved Martha for criticizing Mary, and not necessarily because he valued her service any less. I talk about this some on my blog (asthearmyofhelaman.wordpress.com)

    Reply
  5. Bebe

    It was not taboo for women in Jesus’ time to learn the Torah; I’m not sure where this idea came from…unless it is residual chauvinism. Rabbis’ wives often learned the Torah, although it was not usually permissible for women to preach on the Torah in temple on account of periodic ritual uncleanliness. Frankly, Paul and Christianity have more to answer for women’s subjugation in Christianity than Jesus. Yet so many Christians think Paul truly interprets the Word.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: International Women’s Day 3/08/09 | hgc

  7. tony yuen

    As I was having dinner just now, it just came across my mind to have a look into the story of Mary and Martha. I believe God wants me to have a fresh perspective of this story. Recently, I had on several occasion met with good intention Christians who directly or indirectly impose on other believers what they deemed to be the correct standard behavior of the faith. I stand convinced that the Christ is my Savior and I am chosen by Him to be called His own and to live my life worthy of Him. Yet I also believe God works differently in each of His own. The story of Mary and Martha confirms this. Nothing is the norm with the Christian Life.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: International Women’s Day « Minnowspeaks Weblog

  9. Beth Patterson

    Dear Liz–
    This post is so helpful and wise! Jesus was a radical and he redefined how women and all humans can see themselves…not only as equals but as the literal temple of G’d.

    Thank you for this, Liz–

    Reply
    1. gracerules Post author

      Beth – He was a radical wasn’t he – I pray that I will have the courage to be a little wild myself when it comes to standing up for those who experience oppression and discrimination.

      Reply
  10. Bethany

    wow. I’ve never thought of this story this way – or heard anyone talk about it this way, but it makes so much sense. Thank you so much for sharing this perspective – it totally opens up the story for me.

    Reply
    1. gracerules Post author

      Bethany – Thanks for stopping in and reading my post for the International Women’s Day Synchroblog. There were so many great posts and I especially thought your story about Shiphrah and Puah was wonderful – you really brought these two women to life and demonstrated through your story what it means to live out our faith in a meaningful and tangible way.

      Reply

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