Commentary on Mary and Martha's exchange with Jesus in Luke 10:38-42

A Woman in the Men's Room

Mary and Martha

So, there's this story where Jesus was involved in a discussion that gets interrupted by a woman (named Martha), who was upset that her sister (Mary) was talking with Jesus rather than helping her in the kitchen.

Jesus responds: "Mary has chosen that which is better and I won't take that from her."

What the Story of Mary and Martha is Not About

Today, Luke 10:38-42 has been used to make one of three points, which all merits aside, are not the points of this passage and don't make any sense historically. Generally, these verses are used to say:

1. it's more importance to be with God than serve him
2. it's more importance to love God than serve him
3. it's more importance to listen to God than serve him

Number one and two are easy to throw out: both ignore the historical development of this kind of duality. (A duality is a form of intellectual argument that states that something we once though was one thing is really two things. For example, many people think that the mind, or soul, and body are separate entities.) A duality, separating doing what God says and loving Him, wouldn't have been thought of for around 500 year and popularized to the point where readers would have understood it for 1000, so Jesus would have needed to explain all these cultural changes in thought processes that from our vantage point seem obvious (which he didn't, making him a really poor communicator and probably misunderstood for a thousand years if this is his point). The Jews of Jesus' time didn't make this type of distinction between loving God and serving him (and the Deuteronomical law certainly didn't); loving God was doing what he said and Jesus affirms this viewpoint. Jesus never faults his contemporaries for not having enough romantic feelings for God, or not having spend enough time in contemplation, he faults them for their actions: most namely, for oppressing the poor and trying to wage a religiously motivated war against Rome.

Number three should be thrown out completely, as it doesn't even hold up to an internal critique of the passage itself. If the point of the story was to declare the importance of listening to Jesus, he would have been in a setting of teaching, not discussion, and the author would not have forgotten to include what it was that Jesus was teaching. (In Jesus' day, a teacher taught sitting down while his student stood at attention; when discussing something everyone was free to sit; and Mary is sitting.) Also, theory number three doesn't fit the mold for any sort of Jewish literature, where listening is taken for granted and action is required. Put another way: No Jewish prophet every faulted the people for not listening long enough before putting into practice any of the things they heard. Jewish prophets always called for repentance because the people knew what to do, but didn't do it.

What the story of Mary and Martha is About

Jesus is nothing if not fully Jewish. In Jewish society at the time, high level discussions about politics or religion were only allowed to be attended by men (they even went so far as to prevent women from entering the temple; being only allowed as far as the Gentile's court). So, Mary is joining in with what was then a purely male activity, and crossing gender boundaries.

Put another way, seeing Mary in discussing with Jesus would have been as jarring to Jesus' audience as seeing a woman at a urinal would be to ours (or running a company or being the president). Everyone's cultural response would have been screaming "This is not where a woman belongs!"

And Jesus says he think's it's a good idea. After being, "out" for so long, Jesus is unequivocally declaring women are now "in" on these types of discussions. The story of Mary and Martha is a real life parable about Jesus declaring, in 1st Century Jewish terms, gender equality.