Controlling Women

Gospel: Luke 10:38-42

38 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; 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. [Other ancient authorities read few things are necessary, or only one]  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’


The ministers who berate Martha's busyness have often forgotten who made their breakfast.  And many of us would be far better preachers if we stopped marthaing around in our busy parish and chose the better part, spending a day or two in the few verses of the lectionary, letting it unsettle our being. There is a certain singlemindedness in Mary's determination to be sitting at the Lord's feet and listening— suddenly he is not being called Jesus; this is serious teaching— and it is this determination which will affect how she reads the law, which, as Alison1 says, implies with whose eyes she reads it. If I am busy, I will read with the eyes of the busyness around me. I will not have the headspace to listen, or to determine what at this time is the one necessary thing.

The reading is as important for what it exposes about our prejudices as it is for what it might say to us! My memory of the text as a child is that it criticised Martha for her lack of spiritual submission to Jesus, whilst it was still expected that the Martha's of the church would have spotless houses and be the spiritual fount for the home, so the men could get on with whatever they deemed to be important.

Karoline Lewis says

While there are many issues about our human condition to which this story speaks, this time around, for me anyway, competition between sisters, between women, stands out. Why is it that women are against other women...?

I don't know quite how to express what it is to which Professor Lewis alerts me here, and brings to my consciousness.  In my childhood culture the role of women was well expressed by Anne Summer's book title Damned Whores and God's Police.  At a dance or a nightclub, if two women came to blows, some bloke would yell "Catfight!" and men would throng (and still do) to the spectacle with an unholy joy, for they resented God's police and here was proof that women were no better than them.  A lot of the preaching about Martha and Mary which I have heard always has a sense of catfight underneath it.  We men enjoy the spectacle of two women at odds. Why? asks Lewis: "It is a way to control women."

It's tempting to go straight to the lesson that has Mary in the counter cultural position of sitting at Jesus' feet,' and to point out that this was not a feminine submission, but was to claim an equality of discipleship with men, for here was a woman sitting in the place where men sat whilst women were supposed to stay in the background.

It's not that simple.

For one thing, Martha is herself already a counter cultural figure. As Richard Swanson points out, it is her house. It's not the unnamed daughter of, say, Josiah welcoming Jesus into the house of her father.  The very description of her as a named and independent woman is a challenge. This is not to read something into the text: The name Martha means (From Aramaic מַרְתָּא marta')  "the lady, the mistress." It's the feminine form of מַר (mar) meaning "master."  (See here and here)

Luke was no 21st feminist, but he is playing with gender roles, I think.

The pericope begins "as they went on their way." This is a part of the setting his face to Jerusalem which we saw in Luke 9:51. The story of Martha and Mary is a part of the gift-journey which we are invited to receive and undertake so that we may live, or inherit, the eternal life sought by the lawyer. (Luke 10: 28, 25)

Luke begins the journey with  the sin of inhospitality; that is, a behaviour, or life journeying that does not lead to life. Sodom's inhospitality led to its destruction by fire. Luke neatly stirs up the prejudice of his listeners and readers by linking Sodom to Samaritans, and then utterly disparages the normal human violence towards those who sin, or who do not welcome our view of the world.  When the Samaritans are inhospitable, the variant text of 9:56 makes very clear Jesus' own hospitality toward us all in his refusal to rain down fire: ‘You do not know what spirit you are of, 56for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.’ And the journey goes on to another village, another human place where the journey of life is lived.

The story of the 70 who are sent out, makes clear that this journeying is our gift and calling. Hospitality to others is inextricably linked to being "a son of peace" in the literal Greek; that is, to being anyone who shares in peace, or who experiences the peace / life for which the lawyer longs in 10:25, 28. Inhospitality means we lose this peace and gift.

And then Jesus tempers the joy of the 70 by reminding them that there is one thing which matters: your names are written in heaven. When we talk about peace, busyness, anxiety, and distraction, the memory that our names are written in heaven is balm. In times of anxiety, I remind myself: As important as it may be, none of this matters, for your name is written in heaven, Andrew.

The extraordinary verses in all this are 10:23-24

 Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’

Just then... it says as the lawyer seeks to discern if Jesus is really worth listening to. Just then... is clearly meant to connect the two texts. It fascinates me that in the Greek it says, Καὶ ἰδοὺ:  And behold!! the story of the lawyer and the way he reads the law is one of the things prophets and kings longed to see, but did not. Here it is for us, and more than we expected!

To be neighbour is to be hospitable. It is in this that we find the peace. The peace comes not simply from being good to whomever is like us, to whomever belongs to our group, it comes from being hospitable to whomever is near. The word for neighbour in 10:26 has the root of near, and NRSV has the correct sense when it says the Samaritan came near and saw while the others saw and stayed awayI.

The peace that the kings and prophets longed to see is shown again in hospitality as Martha is hospitable to the Lord. And again, it is beyond what they would have imagined, for here is a woman who is her own person! Behold!!

But it all comes terribly undone. For the householder is distracted by many things. So distracted is the householder that they complain about the behaviour of their sibling, who is doing something admirable— sitting at the feet of the Lord, no less. The householder complains in front of an honoured guest. And worse, far worse, they seek to enlist the help of the guest and embroil the guest in the argument. This is in-hospitality shouted in the face of the Lord.

"Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (9:54)

And behold!!!  he barely reproves her!3 "Martha, Martha..." This is the language of care. His heart is going out to her; he is moved with pity. (10:33) He does not correct her appalling behaviour, but points out the right choice or better part of Mary, for this will not be taken from a disciple.

Do you notice how when we talk of the householder rather than the women Martha and Mary, that this is much clearer? When we concentrate on the sisters we import catfight and misogyny. We obscure that the right choice, the life lived in the knowledge that our names are written in heaven, the life of peace, will not be taken from us.

And we forget that what we have here are two disciples, not two women.  So to the colleague who is busy and has a big church of many people and many distractions, who discounts and disparages our tiny congregation, the Lord says, "This small congregation has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from them." A large congregation does not necessarily equate to distraction. But the disparagement and discounting of the discipleship of another betrays a distraction from the one thing which is needed for life.

I return to the two women, for Lewis' article distresses me. She remarks on an issue which causes great pain for many women.

Why is it that women are against other women, and can be each other’s worst enemies? Why is it that those we thought we could trust end up being those who are determined to undermine our ministry? Well, because our society fosters and depends on the socialization of women toward competition, judgment, and expectation. We should ask why. And we likely know the answer, yet is so very hard to admit.

It is a way to control women. To elevate and exacerbate our insecurities which are the result of unrealistic expectations of performance and beauty. To put women in a place where they are too busy competing against each other to rise up against the injustice of sexism. Well-played. (Ibid)

My personal context is to have been brought into the faith largely through the ministry of women.  Women modelled an emotional life for me;  left to the male modelling available to me, I would have been that rural euphemism called the single car accident. A therapist once observed that I would much preferred to have been a woman, and he was right. As that kind of man, whose best friends have almost always been women, I want to say that when women fight to undermine each other, men are laughing.  Lewis is exactly right.

I stopped laughing a long time ago. But the conditioning is there. Deep down, a disgust which is rooted in misogyny and the preservation of male privilege, rises in even me and has to be resisted when I see women undermining each other. What is worse, is that when it is two men, I am unsurprised. We men are quite oblivious to our cattiness. We project it onto Mary and Martha, or two women in the office, failing to notice that we have lost the peace, failing to notice that live in a perpetual catfight when only one thing is needed for life.

Andrew Prior (2019)

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!

Also on One Man's Web 
To see how this post works out in a sermon: Luke, Luke, only one thing is needful (2019)
Luke 10:38-42 - Mary:Martha (2010)
Luke 10:38-42 - The Better Part  (2013)
Luke 10:38-42 - Dave Chooses the Better Part (2013)

1. James Alison says

one of the factors which blinker us in our reading of the Scriptures is our modern presupposition that the authors of these ancient texts, and thus the texts themselves, are somehow primitive… [but, in fact,] … ancient authors, such as those alive at the time of Christ, were well aware of something we moderns have come to pride ourselves on knowing: that texts can be made to mean more or less whatever it is that you want them to mean. Therefore, for ancient readers, even more than the question “What does the text say?” the question was: “How do you read it?” or “What is your interpretation of it?” And that meant, as they well knew, “Who is your rabbi? Through whose eyes do you read this text?”  (Essay Two, Jesus the Forgiving Victim) Quoted here.

2.  Andrew Prior

Why does it say of both the priest and the Levite and "when he saw him, he passed by on the other side?" Obviously, the repetition of that phrase is a deliberate emphasis of the point, but why does it say that,  but say of the Samaritan that he "came near him; and when he saw him…?"  Is there a way of being that does not come near people, and therefore cannot really see them as human? And what is the way of being that comes "near" people?

3.  Mikeal Parsons.

In this light, it would be difficult to imagine that the authorial audience understood Jesus’ praise of Mary to be an implicit criticism of Martha’s hospitality (a point underscored by the repetition of Martha’s name, an example of conduplicatio, a rhetorical device used to indicate compassion or pity)



This functionality requires the FormBuilder module