The Devil's Peak in the dusk, 2014, looking south from the Hawker Road.

Dave Chooses the Better Part

Week of Sunday July 21
Gospel: Luke 10:38-42

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks (Greek: diakonia); 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.’ 41But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

Luke 8:18 Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away.’

It is Martha who receives Jesus into her home. It is Martha who calls him Lord. She is no way an inferior Christian. Martha is the one in charge of this little house (church?) In fact

Schussler Fiorenza believes that the Mary-Martha narrative reflects the debate over leadership roles for women in the early house churches. The 'good portion' chosen by Mary is the listening to but not the diakonia--the preaching of the word.

"Luke 10:38-42 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 to extol the silent and subordinate behavior of Mary" (Schussler Fiorenza, Elizabeth. 1986. "A Feminist Critical Interpretation for Liberation: Martha and Mary: Luke 10:38-42." Religion and Intellectual Life, vol. 3, no. 2. Winter 1986, pp. 21-36.) Clara Beth Speel Van de Water

Van de Water also says

The ongoing controversy among Biblical scholars today as to how much Torah or religious law women were generally taught may reflect controversy in Jesus' day First century Rabbi Eliazer said, "If a man gives his daughter knowledge of the law, it as though he taught her lechery," and "Better to burn the Torah than to teach it to women"   Rabbi Azzai expressed a different opinion, "A man ought to give his daughter a knowledge of the law." And one of the Mishnah's rabbinic laws states, "He may teach scriptures to his sons and daughters"  

The same controversy still exists. We are confounded by the deep seated gender prejudices of our culture.

"It is Martha who receives Jesus into her home. It is Martha who calls him Lord." How ironic that I should gain this insight from a conservative Christian website, and yet in our enlightened Uniting Church, know an Elder and Preacher whose gifts were tolerated only because she was a widow!

Martha is doing what any woman of the time had to do when there was a visitor; she was looking after the needs of the visitor. Mary is doing what women didn't do, according the norms. She is sitting down in the place of a man and listening to the Rabbi.

Matt  Anslow says

This story is, in the end, not at all about personal religious devotion holding priority over works or service; such an interpretation creates a dualism that is alien to biblical thought (I think paradigmatically of Jesus’ love command – love of God is necessarily and primarily demonstrated in love for others, one cannot precede the other).

Instead, the story breaks through cultural norms that restricted women from sitting at Jesus' feet. Women are not lesser beings. Women are not spiritually inferior. Woman can listen and learn. They do not need their husband to interpret Jesus for them. (Contra the insertion into 1 Corinthians 14)

The power of the story is not exhausted by the gender issues.

What would we think if there were two brothers, Steve and Dave, who put Jesus up for the night? What if Steve was, as the King James Version put it, "was cumbered about much serving," and having a whinge to Jesus?

Would there be any mention of 'women's work?'  Would we not be very clear that there is no dichotomy between '"personal religious devotion" and "works or service?" We would see that for the artificial and unhelpful division that it is. Instead, we would see that "A diakonia that bypasses the Word is one that will never have  lasting character" (Fitzmeyer The Gospel According to Luke Vol 2, pp 892)

What would happen if Steve and Dave were a gay couple?

The way we tell stories has immense power. Schussler-Fiorienza's suggestion that the story of Mary and Martha was actually used to dis-empower women seems at first sight to be ridiculous. But in a church where men's superiority is taken for granted, Jesus' elevation of Mary to the status of a man is often not much less cognitively dissonant than the notion that he was put up for the night by a gay couple called Steve and Dave. Using the story of Mary's elevation to full humanity to put female leader's in their place, is just the sort of think we men, and some women, do.

I am reminded of a wonderful Christian mentor who was chipped by some of the women in the congregation for his exclusively male examples and illustrations. These betrayed the sexism which was also present in other aspects of his worship leadership. He was defensive, but listened and responded. The next week he came back with a mix of male and female illustrations, and the women howled with outrage. Even I could see it. The women in the stories were all negative examples. The men were the heroes. It's a lesson I've not forgotten, but frequently failed.

The thing that will keep us faithful Christian servants from being so 'cumbered with a load of care' that we contradict Jesus, is taking the time to sit at his feet. It is the introspection, the playing with ideas like Martha and Mary versus Steve and Dave, which exposes us to ourselves. It is the 'wasting time' going to funerals which creates space for us to hear the Word. And it is getting up and helping Steve with the dishes, and the feeding of the poor, and speaking out for the dispossessed that tests the Spirit we believe we have heard.  

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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