Less correction, than invitation. That’s important to get hold of. An invitation to share in the good thing that Mary was already enjoying – Jesus own presence. It is clear that Jesus is not angry with Martha, by the affectionate way in which he repeats her name, “Martha, Martha.” The difficulty is that it sounds rather patronising, and it could be that for all Luke’s supposed advocacy of women in his gospel, he is in the end as patriarchal as any other NT writer.
An important contemporary interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha originates with one of today's foremost feminist theologians and New Testament scholars, Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Schussler Fiorenza contends that this story "is generated by and addressed to a situation in the life of the early church."
Schussler Fiorenza believes that the Mary-Martha narrative reflects the debate over leadership roles for women in the early house churches. In the early house churches women were exercising leadership and ministry as deacons – the very word diakonia, which is used of Martha, to describe how she ‘serves’ at table, is used in other places to describe the ministry of the deacon. The 'good portion' chosen by Mary is the listening to but not the diakonia--the preaching of the word.” This story then pits the apostolic women of the Jesus movement against each other and appeals to a revelatory word of the resurrected Lord in order to restrict women's ministry and silence women leaders of house churches, who like Martha might have protested, and at the same time serves to extol the silent and subordinate behavior of Mary" (Schussler Fiorenza 1986:31-32).
Schussler Fiorenza views Martha's service as representing a ministry in the early church and interprets Mary's behaviour as subordinate. It is certainly a compelling argument and one that would accord with the higher place that was given down the following centuries to women who chose to serve God as nuns, over those who were compelled to live married lives in subordination to their husbands and male church leaders.
So, when we look at Martha and Mary, who do we see? Do we see in Martha a harassed housewife, striving to fulfil the duties demanded by Jewish hospitality, and admonishing another woman for choosing a different path? Or do we see a considerable church leader, whose autonomy and self-determination is being challenged by the male headship of the early church? And when we look at Mary, do we see a woman defying the expectations of her day and asserting her right to equal discipleship with male students? Or do we see a woman being put back in the place of silence and submission to male authority – allowed to listen but not to challenge? And either way where do we see ourselves in this story? For many of us in today’s high paced, constantly connected world, the appeal of Mary is obvious. To concentrate for once on a single task – the task of listening to Jesus with our full attention – can feel like an unattainable luxury. Yet it is clear that this concentration on love of God is only half of the story. This story is immediately preceded as we heard last week, by the story of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’s command that we go and do likewise. Love for neighbour is of equal importance – the two parts of the law are hear held in balance in Luke’s account. Love God but love your neighbour too – as yourself. And perhaps this last may provide the key to our responses to Mary and Martha.
For both are clearly necessary; both action and contemplation; service and prayer. Neither is to be preferred above the other and both can take us to God when undertaken without worry or distraction. But which path for you today, will enable you to love not just God and neighbour, but yourself as well? For when we care for ourselves and foster within ourselves the gifts God has given, then truly we will have that ‘good part, which shall not be taken away from us.’ In the name of Christ.
by Penny Jones, 21 July 2019