I’ve been thinking about Martha and Mary recently. It was the Gospel reading Sunday past, but I’d been thinking before then. The actual story is quite short. Located at Lk 10:38-42, I will quote it in full.
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “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.”
There are many treatments of this periscope, most of them refer to the fact that Martha is concerned about the realities of this life, while Mary recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, and wishes to learn from the Master. Clearly this is the “better part.” God first, dishes second.
But thanks to Mompriest at Seeking Authentic Voice and Elizabeth Kaeton at Telling Secrets, who both wrote on this story, I’ve learned a much deeper meaning. Even more so, what follows is informed by Ebeling’s, Women’s Lives in Biblical Times, and the rector of Christ Episcopal Church, +Martha. And it is mostly from that perspective that I wish to write today.
Ebeling informs us that women in biblical times were seldom autonomous beings. The system of patrimony dictated that women went to live in the villages and homes of their husbands and were under the authority of the husband and his father or elder brother if alive. Women seldom inherited property–all went to any male progeny.
So at the start we are faced with a strange fact. The house here is defined as Martha’s. Yet, Martha is the sister of Lazarus, and presumably Lazarus is alive. A couple of points. In John’s Gospel, this same Lazarus does die, but is raised some days after his burial.(John 11:41-44) He is not the same Lazarus who is mentioned in Luke 16:19-31, who had conversation with the rich man in the afterlife, outside hell.
We know from the Lazarus rising story that the siblings lived in Bethany, a village about 1.5 miles from Jerusalem, and indeed the modern day site of al-Eizariya means Tomb of Lazarus. So it appears that at this visit by Jesus, Lazarus was still living in the home.
This makes it curious that the home is denoted as Martha’s, since clearly, tradition would have made it Lazarus’s. This may have been simply a literary change to fit the point Luke wished to make.
More importantly, the cultural norms would never permit a woman to invite any man to her home period. And it is this which I had never considered before. So indeed it was Martha who was first stepping way out in uncharted territory by being so bold. One can imagine other people of the village witnessing her standing forth at the door and beckoning Jesus into the home. How they must have talked!
Tradition would also dictate that Martha was responsible for the cooking and other home care tasks. While Lazarus might have been the one to offer a pallet for Jesus to sit upon (chairs were not known I don’t believe in small village homes), it would have been the women’s duty to supply water for washing and the food.
Anyone who reads the bible regularly would realize that a major aspect of Jesus’ ministry was his table hospitality, his radical departure from what was considered right and even in a sense legal. One did not dine with the unclean and certainly not with sinners. He pushed the limits of hospitality to include all.
So it is somewhat disconcerting when he downplays Martha’s efforts. After all, she has courageously seen him for who he is, and ignored all propriety in inviting him forth. Yet he gives no recognition to her, nor does he validate her dedication to good hospitality in making her guests comfortable. No doubt Jesus was accompanied by his disciples (more strange men), since “they” is used in the story.
It is clear that Mary too is courageous and not typical of her gender. She boldly sits at the feet of Jesus to listen to his words. I’m not completely clear, but I suspect that women were not allowed to dine in the same room with strangers who were male, but were separated from them. Her actions are indeed bold, and also recognize that this Jesus is not just your average rabbi.
Our priest, Martha, suggested that what Jesus means by his upholding of Mary’s choice is that when we invite Jesus in, we should be prepared to have our lives upset and turned upside down. In order to make this point, poor Martha (from the story) is chastised softly. Hospitality is one thing, and usually most important, but when God’s chosen arrives, all else must stop lest one miss the message being offered.
God disturbs our complacency, much as both Martha and Mary disturbed the social customs of their village and time. Something big is afoot here, they trumpet by their actions. God changes the rules, much as Jesus suggests that Martha and perhaps the men in the room might rethink all this business of who does what, where and when. It’s a new day. The Kingdom has arrived. And things will never be the same.