A Reflection on the Mary and Martha Story in Luke 10: 38-42
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
On July 29 of this year, on the feast of Mary and Martha of Bethany, the Episcopal Church (in which I am priest) will mark the thirtieth anniversary of that glorious rebellion in Philadelphia in which eleven fierce women who felt called to the priesthood submitted themselves-in obedience to God, and in defiance of the Church which did not ordain women at that time- to be ordained by courageous and rebellious bishops, finally paving the way for women to take their full and equal place at the Lord’s Table. That this providential rebellion occurred on the feast of Mary and Martha was so apropos for if there is anything about the story of Mary and Martha, it is a story of inclusion, finding a place of welcome in God’s Table fellowship not only for women, but for those who find themselves excluded and marginalized by others from God’s Table.
The story in Luke 10: 38-42 is often interpreted in which Mary is exalted over Martha because she is seen as the more spiritual, the more contemplative, while Martha is often seen as the disciple consumed with worldly cares, easily distracted by “life.” The words of Jesus that “Mary chose the better part” have often been interpreted by many as to mean that there is a hierarchical divide between the spiritual life AND the active life, our life in the “secular” world. But I want to suggest to you that such reading of the Gospel perpetuates an incorrect and unhealthy notion that many busy people like us who live and work out there in the “secular” world could not be spiritual; and that “spiritual” people couldn’t live in this world, and love this world. For by virtue of our baptism, our life has a two-fold orientation; towards God, which means we all must be mystical and contemplative lovers of God; and, towards the world, which means Christians must love and care enough for the world that they must actively serve it by bringing it closer to God because it is God’s world after all. So, I propose a different reading.
The Gospel story begins with Jesus and about eighty of his male disciples heading to a certain village to take a needed break from their preaching, seeking temporary shelter and rest from their travel in what proved to be an unfriendly territory. They were met by one of Jesus’ friends; a certain woman named, Martha, whose name means “lady.” That Martha, whose name means “lady,” welcomed the men in her living room, was odd. Not a very ladylike behavior. Indeed, her invitation would have raised eyebrows among the neighbors because it was pretty much unacceptable that a “lady” offers hospitality to that many men. But Martha was a fierce woman in that she broke the social norms of hospitality of her society to offer a deeper hospitality to Jesus and his weary disciples. But as soon as she welcomed Jesus and his entourage, she left the room, and so, removed herself from his presence. But Mary did the opposite. Mary sat herself beside Jesus, at his feet, and “heard his words.” What was Jesus the Word of God made flesh saying to her? Luke does not say but in this contemplative listening to Jesus there was an intimate and deep profound encounter with the Lord that produced a radical change, a radical transformation in the life of Mary, and the world around her. Luke tells us that as we all gather and hear the words of Jesus we must be ready, like Mary, for a profound life changing event, and to submit readily to this summons to a radical transformation of our life.
By our own standards, there was nothing wrong with Mary spending time with Jesus in attentive listening to him because she was only compensating for Martha’s busyness. But in fact, by the cultural standards of Jesus’ day, both Jesus and Mary violated a social norm. In her society and culture, her place was not with the men. She was supposed to serve the men, but to socialize and fraternize with them was not appropriate. But we know that she would not have been there if it were not for Jesus who invited her to be part of his intimate company. While we don’t exactly know what his words were, we do know however that what he was saying had a liberating effect on Mary. She took her place at the table as an equal to “the boys,” and that she assumed the role of a religious disciple. Mary’s action was quite bold because women in her society and in her religious tradition were often denied the right to religious instruction that men enjoyed. But, Jesus, the Word of God, liberates her and lifts her up from her socially defined status of inferiority and marginalization. The Word of God brings to her justice! When Jesus invited Mary to cross that threshold that separates the sphere of the men from the women, Jesus invited her to claim justice for herself. The irony is that Jesus the Guest was the one who offered Mary, the hostess, a far radical hospitality by inviting her to his table fellowship of intimate friends. And by following Jesus, not only was Mary’s life transformed, but also, the world around her was transformed. By placing herself among the men where her presence as an equal wasn’t welcome, in that table fellowship in that tiny hamlet occurred a radical social transformation- a political, cultural, and religious change. Through Mary, Jesus criticizes and brings judgment against any political assembly, or social fellowship, or worship gathering that discriminates, and that does not practice the radical hospitality of God’s Kingdom, a radical hospitality that welcome anyone regardless of their position in society and in religion. Jesus abolished elitism in his community that created an unjust hierarchical division among members of his community. Luke tells us that Jesus’ radical hospitality to Mary shows that in God’s community, there is to be no inequality, discrimination or elitism. The community of Christ must overcome racial, cultural, sexual, political and class elitism: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
Now Martha was upset because Jesus, far from being the gracious Guest, did more than “rearrange the furniture”. In fact, what Jesus did was to turn the entire social and religious system upside down by calling into question the deeply held values and practices of his society and religious tradition that block access to justice, and to God. Martha became the voice of status quo, the voice of society and religious tradition that resist just change. As Mary chose to sit with the men as an equal, Martha refused to join in Jesus’ banquet of justice. And she was not the only one upset, for the Greek of Luke’s Gospel seems to suggest that she might have gotten the male guests to join her in her protest because the men stood to lose their status and privilege. Martha wanted Jesus to reverse his actions, but Jesus refused. Mary had chosen justice for herself, and that would not be taken from her.
As we ponder this story, I suggest we keep the following in mind. I want to emphasize that the Gospel story is far more than just about women and women’s rights. Rather, Luke tells us that in our encounter with the Lord, as we sit at the Lord’s feet listening to the Word and dining with the Lord around his Table, there is a costly demand upon us from this Lord to enter places in our society, and in the Church where we would be called to challenge and transform any political, cultural, social, economic and even spiritual relationships that marginalize any group of people. The life of Christian discipleship entails the profound risk of being sent to proclaim God’s radical hospitality in places that we know would resist it, and sometimes violently. But this presupposes that we likewise practice God’s radical hospitality. And, in turn, this would mean that if we find ourselves benefiting from privilege because of, for example, our wealth, race, or status, or gender, the Gospel challenges us to de-privilege ourselves just as Jesus asked the men to de-privilege themselves to make room for Mary. In sitting by the feet of Jesus, we are commanded, required that we transform our relationships with the people around us so that justice is maintained, and discrimination and any form of elitist relationship abolished.
© 2004 Noel E. Bordador
Noel E. Bordador is a queer Filipino Episcopal (Anglican) priest in the Diocese of New York.
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