Out of Her Proper Place

This coming Sunday is the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time  and the story of Martha and Mary. In yesterday’s post we considered the gospel text and offered some thoughts about it. Today we consider the proper role and place of discipleship and service.

There are some things that are culturally amiss here.  First of all, Mary is not in her “proper place” according to the culture. In the gender-based division of space in that culture, it is very likely Mary who is sitting with Jesus in an area reserved for men (whether dining area or “living room” area). Second, it is not clear who is the elder sister here. Since Jesus interacts with Mary here and in John 11, perhaps Martha might have been the younger sister. But since Martha extended the hospitality into “her” (?) home, she is the elder sister.

In the Mediterranean cultural perspective on human activity men are expected to be spontaneous, to react to the challenge, opportunity, or invitation of the moment (see Luke 7:31-35). Women are expected to work, achieve, to be involved in purposeful activity.  Mary is spontaneously engaging Jesus when she should be involved in purposeful activity.  This can be seen when men are healed in Luke’s gospel, they respond spontaneously and run out to spread the word. When Simon’s mother-in-law is healed, her first response is the measured activity of serving a meal.

Jesus’ positive judgment that “Mary has chosen the better part” and his gentle reminder to Martha for being “anxious and worried about many things” fits into Jesus’ customary, counter-structural positions. He frequently takes his culture’s second-choice options for either gender, in this case “spontaneous” behavior among women, and urges it as a good alternative to the first choice (“achievement”).

Jesus doesn’t criticize Martha for her “service,” but for her worries and anxieties about many things – a life that is being pulled in too many directions. As Jesus told Satan during the temptation, we don’t live by bread alone. Jesus doesn’t need an elaborate multi-course feast. Everything doesn’t have to be quite perfect… but neither should we strive for mediocrity or seek to “just get by”.

Perhaps Jesus may be criticizing her for “opposing” his radical departure from the cultural norm by treating Mary, a female, as a disciple. From Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentary):

If we censure Martha too harshly, she may abandon serving altogether, and if we commend Mary too profusely, she may sit there forever. There is a time to go and do; there is a time to listen and reflect. Knowing which and when is a matter of spiritual discernment. If we were to ask Jesus which example applies to us, the Samaritan or Mary, his answer would probably be Yes.

The lawyer in the preceding story was skilled in scripture but had trouble really hearing the Word of God. He is given the example of a Samaritan who does the Word of God; someone the lawyer wouldn’t have expected to properly understand scriptures.

Martha was so anxious about doing that she had trouble hearing the word of God. She is given the example of Mary; a woman who should have been working in the kitchen just as hard as Martha – and Jesus should have known better. Proper rabbis do not let women to sit at their feet and be disciples.

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