Every time this Gospel about Mary and Martha come around, I cringe. It seems to be a set up to pit women against one another using Jesus as the instigator. I know that in the time of the reading it was shocking for Jesus to go to the home of 2 unaccompanied (by men) women, to eat with them, to allow one to slack off on her household duties, and to encourage the other one to do the same, and to teach women theology. Nevertheless it seems every sermon seems to end up with bad Martha, good Mary. What is the good news?
Here is an exegesis by John Julian:
Saints Mary and Martha of Bethany
“In the Gospel of St. Luke we read that our Lord came to Martha’s house and while she set about at once to prepare his meal, her sister did nothing but sit at his feet. She was so intent upon listening to him that she paid no attention to what Martha was do ing. Now certainly Martha’s chores were holy and important…But Mary…was totally absorbed in the highest wisdom of God concealed in the obscurity of [Jesus’] humanity.
“Mary turned to Jesus with all the love of her heart, unmoved by what she saw or heard spoken and done about her…Why? Because it is the best and holiest part of the contemplative life possible to mortals and she would not relinquish it for anything on earth. Even when Martha complained to Je sus about her, scolding him for not bidding her to get up and help with the work, Mary remained there quite still and untroubled, showing not the least resentment against Martha for her grumbling. But this is not surprising really, for she was utterly absorbed in another work, all unknown to Martha, and she did not have time to notice her sister or defend herself.
“My friend, do you see that this whole incident concerning Jesus and the two sisters was intended as a lesson for active and contemplative persons of the Church in every age? Mary represents the contemplative life and all contemplative persons ought to model their lives on hers. Martha represents the active life and all active persons should take her as their guide.”
So wrote the anonymous author of the 14th-century spiritual discourse The Cloud of Unknowing, representing the ancient tradition of seeing Mary and Martha as representing the Two Ways of Prayer. It is interesting that virtually every present-day scholar makes a point of dis agreeing with that understanding – not perhaps surprising in a culture which highly values activity and cares little for meditative silence.
What we know about Mary and Martha of Bethany beyond the scriptural accounts is an extremely tangled and confused muddle, because until fairly recently virtually every scholar identified Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen. So the medieval legend has it that after the Resurrection, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus set out to evangelize Provence in southern France, with Martha’s relics supposedly being miraculously dis covered in 1187 at the town of Tarascon (on the Côte-d’Azur in southeastern France) where she allegedly tamed the legendary dragon “La Tarasque”.
But what do the scripture accounts themselves tell us about these two good women? According to John, they lived in the town of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem on the Jericho road, and they were the sisters of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. But the account of Jesus’ first visit to Mary and Martha appears only in Luke. In his account of that visit we can recognize that Jesus himself is shatter ing at least three Jewish forbidden cultural norms of his society:
a. He is apparently alone with women who are not his relatives. (Where is Lazarus?)
b. A woman waits on him and serves him.
c. He teaches a woman in her own house.
These were all forbidden by universal Jewish custom, so this is yet another example of Jesus’ re fusal to treat women as second-class, subordinate persons but, rather, equal with men.
In addition, Mary is portrayed as taking the position proper only to a male disci ple, i.e., at Jesus’ feet. The Mishnah says plainly: “Let your house be a meeting-place for the Sages and sit amid the dust at their feet and drink in their words with thirst…[but] talk not much with womankind.” By sitting at Jesus’s feet, Mary is violat ing a clear so cial boundary and, according to Jewish custom, is thereby bringing shame upon her house; Jesus himself by speaking with her so deeply also breaks the rab bini cal norm against converse with women.
Martha, on the other hand, is doing the proper work of a Jewish woman – preparing a meal – and she complains that Mary is not helping her. Within Jewish traditions, Martha’s protest is completely appropriate and entirely justifiable; it is not, as it may seem to us, merely an issue of peevish jealousy or control over her sister. In a sense, Martha is say ing, “Mary’s behavior is shameful for a Jewish woman. She doesn’t know her place. You, Jesus, are a Rabbi; it is your responsibility to correct her.” Jesus certainly would have understood that, and yet he refuses that socially appropriate de mand – and goes even further: he actually gives his approval and blessing on Mary’s “shameful, improper, and unfeminine” behavior.
And when Jesus responds to Martha, he repeats her name – ”Martha, Martha” – which in itself is a sign of mild criticism or at least of a lament. [Jesus uses the same technique of repetition with Peter when he predicts his betrayal: “Simon, Simon, take heed: Satan has been given leave to sift all of you like wheat” (Luke 22:31-REB)]
Jesus’ statement to Martha has several different versions in early manuscripts:
1. “Only a few things are needed” is Jesus’s response in two early scriptural manuscripts. There are some scholars who suggest that here he may have simply been talking about the meal itself, i.e., saying that Martha need not bother with a lavish feast: that “only a few dishes are necessary.”
2. In six other early manuscripts, the phrase is “There is need of one thing [only].” This seems more clearly to be addressing the matter of spiritual priorities (and is used by the translators of the NRSV, the REB and the NAB).
3. Three other early manuscripts have a slightly fuller version: “Only a few things are needed, indeed, only one.” This seems to be a conflation of two earlier traditions, and it is this ver sion the Jerusalem Bible translators use.
Finally, in a bit of speculation, it is just conceivable that this entire story (which appears only in Luke) may have originally been as much a parable as that of the Good Samaritan (which immediately precedes it in the Gospel) — a conclusion based on four words:
1. In Luke, the story is said to take place in “a certain village” (kómayn tiná). However, that village could not have been Bethany (where John’s Gospel locates them) because that would be far too close to Jerusalem for the journey Jesus is on. Some scholars suggest that it was in Magdala in Galilee. Also, the adjective “certain” (“a certain village” and “a certain woman”) is used most commonly as the introduction to a parable in ten places in Luke and at least two in Matthew (e.g., “A certain man was going down to Jerusalem…”).
2. Martha means “mistress” or “lady” in Hebrew and Mary is from Miriam that means “rebellious”, suggesting that if this was originally a parable, these two women may have been meant simply to represent two behavioral traits, rather than actual persons.
3. When Martha is described as “burdened with much serving” the Greek word for “serving” here is diakoneîn – “deaconing” – which is usually used by Luke to refer to the service of Christian ministry. It might be possible to conclude, then, that Jesus is using the parable/story to place primacy on the hearing of the word rather than on a more active ministry of serving (i.e., deaconing) others.
4. There could a Greek word-play in the last two verses: Martha is described as “anxious” and the Greek is merimnás; and Mary’s name in Greek is Mariám – the two words sound very much alike. Was Jesus telling us that it as better to be “rebellious” than “anxious”?
In scripture, the only other place we meet Mary and Martha is in the Gospel of John. In this ac count, the sisters send a message to Jesus that their brother Lazarus is ill. Then Je sus waits for two days to make sure Lazarus is recognized as dead. When he is on the way to Bethany, Martha goes to meet him and then calls her sister, apparently telling Mary a white lie: “The Master is here and is asking for you.” when there is no textual evidence that Jesus was, in fact, asking for Mary. Mary runs to Jesus and falls weeping at his feet, and Jesus weeps with her before he orders the cover re moved from the tomb and calls Lazarus out. Later, at a supper with Lazarus and his sisters, Mary silently anoints Jesus’ feet with precious ointment – a gesture of great honor and love.
Certainly, whether in parable or in history, in Jesus’s relation to Mary and Martha, we are presented with a rare human dimension to his life: that of simple, good, human friend ship – a dimension that can enthusiastically be celebrated on this occasion.
Cowan, Tom; The Way of the Saints; G.B. Putnam’s Sons; NY; 1998.
Cross, F.L. & Livingstone, E.A., eds.; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church; Oxford U.P.; Oxford; 1988.
de Voragine, Jacobus (Ryan, W.G. (tr); The Golden Legend; vol. 1 & 2; Princeton University Press; Princeton; NJ; 1993.
Esler, Philip F. & Piper, Ronald A.; Lazarus, Mary and Martha: A Social-Scientific and Theological Reading of John; SCM; London; 2007.
Hughson, Shirley C, OHC; Athletes of God; Holy Cross Press; West Park, NY 1930.
King, Ursula; Christian Mystics: The Spiritual Heart of the Christian Tradition; Simon & Schuster; NY; 1998.
Wikipedia: “Martha”; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha; (04/21/05)
 Johnston, William, tr. & ed.; The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling; Doubleday; New York; 1973.
If Martha was an early church deacon - is the story more about the way clergy slip into too much doing and not enough waiting in the stillness of God. That I can see more than a story of women fighting.
And from J. Frazer Crocker
Scolded like an impolite child
stopped in mid gesture
with a wooden spoon in one hand
while a bowl falls from the other
Hidden in the dimness of the pantry
under a chandelier of spider-webs
she stands ashamed in the glow of the kitchen fire
covering her dress with a blue apron
stained by a small dark smudge over her breast
She shades her brow with a starched cloth
In the darkness the barrels pray
patient with the maturing of malt
The truth of oil settles in clay jugs
A tear trembles on a flaxen eyelash
Greatly saddened shadows
are lit only by a humble and apologetic
sliver of green glance
Yet still disobedient she continues to serve
heart in a rush of love
even when her wise sister
slim as a poplar
calmly takes out of her hands
a warm loaf of bread sprinkled with snow