Let’s talk about Mary and Martha.
First, listen to the story again. It’s short. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, his followers with him. This is it; he’s walking towards his final confrontation with the powers of this age, and towards his death on the cross. And he stops for the night with some friends, the sisters Martha and Mary. (We know of their friendship from John’s Gospel.) Martha, who seems to have been the head of the household, welcomes him as a guest, and sets about doing what you do for guests: providing a hot, delicious meal, and a comfortable place to sleep. Meanwhile, Jesus sits down and starts talking. Maybe teaching or preaching; maybe answering questions. And Mary, Martha’s sister, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his message. And Martha gets annoyed. She knows Mary won’t listen to HER, so she goes to Jesus and says, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” And Jesus answers, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It will not be taken away from her.”
When I was in seminary, at the Episcopal Divinity School, my advisor was Dr. Kwok Pui-Lan – a fiercely smart scholar who works on postcolonial theology and Asian feminist theology. She preached on this text at one of our chapel services, talking about the dilemma this text poses for her.
As a feminist, she wants to rush to Martha’s defense. Women’s domestic work has been undervalued for a long, long time. Tasks like raising children; tending the sick and elderly; gathering food, farming and gardening; preparing and storing food; and making clothing to protect us from the elements – all of that work is literally why humanity still exists. But for millennia, those in power – mostly dudes – have not regarded it as “real” work, as “important” work. We are still struggling to shift that absurd mindset – aided by men who are increasingly involved in domestic labor, and are saying, Hey, you know, this IS real work, and deserves respect and support!
It is easy to hear Jesus’ words here spoken in the voice of patriarchy. Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. Martha, you’re wasting your time on things that don’t matter – hot food and clean sheets. Martha, your domestic labor is unimportant next to the great matters that occupy great minds. Stick to your supporting role and don’t interrupt the thinkers. Maybe you should run down to Ross and see if they have a good deal on non-stick pans.
But – said Pui-Lan in her sermon – While I want to step up and defend Martha, I am in fact a Mary. I was raised by parents whose greatest hope for me was to be able to spend my life sitting and thinking deep thoughts. So they fed me and clothed me while I spent hours on homework; they funded my education; they kept me free from mundane concerns. They worked so that I could think. Martha is burdened because Mary is free.
I loved Pui-Lan’s sermon and still remember it, because I also feel torn about this text. I’m defensive of Martha partly because the passage seems unfair; but also, if I’m honest, because every time I read this, Jesus’ words to Martha are speaking to me. Kindly, not harshly – but he’s got my number. I am busy and distracted by many things. It would serve me well to put some stuff down and sit at Jesus’ feet for a while.
But I think my defensiveness about Martha has kept me from seeing this text clearly – as a feminist text. I’ve been too busy empathizing with Martha to notice what Mary is doing, and what Jesus says about it.
Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him preach. Mary is doing what disciples do.
The people in the Gospels who are given the title of disciple are all men. But it’s very clear that Jesus had many disciples, and a lot of them were women – women who received his teaching, supported his mission, stayed with him when the worst happened, and and went on to preach, teach, and lead churches after the Resurrection.
Just a couple of chapters earlier, Luke writes that as Jesus traveled the countryside, proclaiming the Kingdom, “The twelve [disciples] were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Women are right there, traveling with the core group, supporting the mission with food and funding.
Thinking about Mary Magdala, Joanna, Susanna, and the others – the women disciples – casts Mary, and Martha, in a new light. Mary is doing what a disciple does; and Jesus is defending her right to do so, and telling Martha that she has that right, too.
Martha is a strong, independent woman, by first century standards. She’s the head of her household. She feels free to speak her mind to friend the great rabbi. But she still feels bound by expectations about women’s work. Jesus is telling her, in effect, that if she wants to let the stew burn, and sit down with Mary, and listen to Jesus talk about the Kingdom for a while, she can do that. She doesn’t have to be the busy worker bee feeding everybody. That’s noble, important work; but it should be a choice, a calling, a joy, not an obligation imposed by gender norms.
Mary is doing what a disciples does – and Jesus says, This will NOT be taken away from her. In fact, of course, it was. It has been – over and over again. After the first generation or so of Christian leaders, women were pushed into secondary roles, their voices, stories, and spiritual authority sidelined.
My morning routine right now includes reading a daily passage from the writings of the medieval Christian women mystics, from a wonderful book called Incadescence, compiled by Carmen Acevedo Butcher. Religious mysticism is hard to sum up simply. Mystics have special visions or experiences that reveal hidden realities or truths. Christian mystical writing, in particular, often stresses both God’s overwhelming immensity and God’s overwhelming love, dwelling in the rich paradox of divine trasncendence and intimacy.
If you want to get the flavor of a mystical text, you could do worse than look at today’s reading from the letter to the Colossians, which sounds not unlike some of the passages I’ve been reading in the mornings. Its description of Christ overflows with meaning and mystery, giving a sense of a text written from the depth and intensity of an experience that transcends words: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together…. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to Godself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.”
The letter to the Colossians is written in Paul’s name, but scholars seem genuinely divided on whether this is Paul writing in a somewhat different voice than his other letters, or somebody else, familiar with Paul’s writings, borrowing his authority. Let it be noted that it’s not uncommon over the course of history for a woman to use a man’s name to get her writings read and taken seriously.
But regardless of the authorship of Colossians, it offers us a glimpse of Christian mysticism, which has flowered in many forms and many places over the past two millennia, leaving behind theological texts, poems, hymns and art that are powerful, profound, attractive, and challenging.
The immediacy of the mystic’s connection with the Divine can make an end-run around structures of religious authority and interpretation – so it should not be surprising that so many of the great medieval mystics were women. People like Julian of Norwich and her visions revealing God’s profound love for humanity; Catherine of Siena and her commitment to serving the poor ad advocating for peace; Hildegard of Bingen and her vision of the living Light infusing all things; the Beguine women’s monastic movement… Those medieval women mystics were fighting to reclaim their place at Jesus’ feet, and their voices as witnesses, in an entirely male-dominated church.
This crop of medieval Mary-types met with qualified acceptance from male religious authorities… but in the later medieval period, the pendulum swung back. Church hierarchies began to place more restriction on women’s religious lives, and to question the orthodoxy of women mystics’ teachings. In some areas, Inquisitors tried women mystics, and executed some of them.
It’s far from the only time in human history when women who wonder, inquire, study and seek have met with resistance. In the mid-to-late 19th century, many people, including reputable scientists, believed if women went to college or did anything else that strained their brains, it would drain life force from their reproductive organs, which were of course their primary life purpose. One text warned, “Beware!! Science pronounces that the woman who studies is lost!” (Quoted in Barbara Ehrenreich and Diedre English. For Her Own good: 150 Years of the Experts Advice to Women, p.100.)
It’s over against words and ideas like these that Jesus’ defense of Mary becomes good news. Mary belongs here, among the disciples, dwelling deeply with her Lord and his teachings. She has a right to her place at Jesus’ feet; and when the Church has driven her away, over and over again through the centuries, the Church has been wrong.
I wish I could say that this is ancient history – that nobody is trying to keep women out of pulpits, boardrooms, and universities today. Of course that’s not true. But I hope that everyone in this room, irrespective of gender, feels that they have they have the freedom to commit themselves to study, theological or otherwise, if they so choose. So what is the good news here for us?
For one thing, Jesus’ words to Martha reminds me to resist the false idea that busy-ness equals importance. That accomplishment equals human worth. I know better – I’m sure you do too – but this is a pervasive mindset in our culture, in the very air we breathe, so it sneaks in. I need to hear Jesus’ loving words to Martha – and I do believe they are loving words – saying, You don’t have to be so driven. Your value doesn’t depend on how much you get done.
At the same time, I think this story – when we dwell with it a little – invites us to refuse the false choice between Mary and Martha. Between enlightenment and effectiveness. The problem for Martha isn’t that she’s busy. The problem is that she doesn’t want to be doing what she’s doing, but can’t figure out how to put it down and walk away.
I have prepared a meal for others with a serene and grateful heart. I have sat at the feet of the wise and great to listen and learn with a grumpy and resentful heart – because that moment, it felt like something I had to do, instead of something I had chosen with joy.
Jesus is inviting Martha – inviting us – to freedom from the stuff we feel like we’re supposed to do. From unchosen roles and imposed expectations. In the Kingdom of God, in the Life of the Age, there is no male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Greek; in God’s household, who we are does not determine what we’re allowed to do. That’s the freedom Jesus Christ is holding out to Mary and Martha alike, and to us – and it will not be taken away.
More on ideas about women’s brains in the 19th century: