Living as Disciples Worship Series: WEEK 2
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost – July 21, 2019
So this second week in our series on “Living as Disciples for the Transformation of the World” we consider the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. For those of you who read my words regularly what I’m about to write may sound like I am beating a dead horse, but I simply cannot and will not read the story of Mary and Martha as an indictment of Martha and a lauding of Mary. The time has come to put that horse in its coffin, especially in light of Pope Francis’ recent acknowledgment that Christian history indicates that women in the early church served as deacons, and (in my opinion) likely were ordained by the laying on of hands as men were.
While there are a number of interpretative perspectives offered by scholars, I will summarize the work of my favorite, Bonnie Thurston (Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1998). (Note that I am repeating here some of what I have written in past notes.)
Thurston writes that this story appears in Luke’s Gospel during the period when Jesus has “set his face to Jerusalem.” All along his route, from the region of Galilee in the north down towards Jerusalem in the south, Jesus gathers crowds of people and teaches them. So in these stories, many of his teachings are meant for both the crowds and his disciples and traveling companions.
Many of these teachings occur in the context of a meal, and often involve Pharisees. Jesus meets a variety of people on his journey, including wealthy and poor, clean and unclean, righteous and “sinners.”
In today’s story Jesus stops in at the home of Mary and Martha after passing through Samaria. The usual interpretation of this story pits the two women against each other, usually as a way of focusing on Mary as the more favored and righteous of the two sisters. In contrast, Martha is portrayed as so distracted by fixing dinner and cleaning up afterwards that Jesus must scold her for not putting her domestic duties aside and joining Mary for the study session. The lesson: be like Mary and don’t be like Martha. Take time to listen quietly to Jesus. Don’t be distracted by your housework or anything else.
Even though I have always thought Martha gets a bum rap in this story, for many years I had a hard time finding any commentary on this passage that didn’t do this. Placing these two important women as adversaries seems to be the only way most commentators have come up with to interpret its meaning.
Following Thurston, then, I want to suggest that instead of contrasting these two sisters a fresh interpretation would be to focus on two main points.
First, this story represents clear and convincing evidence that women were active as leaders in the early stages of the Jesus movement. In this story we see women who are referred to by their own names (as opposed to being identified by their relationship with a male) and who host Jesus in their home. Notice that in Luke’s version of the story they are not identified as the sisters of Lazarus; rather, “a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home” (10:38, emphasis mine).
In the ancient world this would have been unusual. Only under certain circumstances were women legally allowed to own property, and very few women met the criteria. But here we have a home identified not as belonging to their brother Lazarus, but to Martha, the shunned and scolded sister. So this fact, in and of itself, ought to give us pause to think about what it means. I can’t imagine that the author of Luke provided this detail unintentionally. What might Luke be telling us about Mary and Martha through his careful wording?
And second, in spite of much of interpretive history, this really is not a text that pits housework against study, or even works righteousness against grace. For example, despite my own assumption above that a meal and its clean-up was involved in Martha’s domestic distractions, there is actually no reference at all to an elaborate meal being prepared or served.
Luke, in fact, chooses a very technical term to describe Martha’s work in verse 40: diakonian. In the NRSV this word is translated as “many tasks” but Thurston provides more insight. She writes,
Martha, we are told in v. 40, “was distracted by her many tasks, ‘literally’ by much serving.” Again, the Greek word is diakonian, which in Luke is used more in the context of “activity of an in-between kind,” “spokesperson,” than of “waiting tables.” Diakonia in Luke-Acts. . . denotes participation with others in leadership and ministry on behalf of the community. Six of its eight uses in Acts point to leadership in the church and proclamation of the Gospel. Is Martha’s “serving” domestic activity or ministry? It may well be that Martha is distracted by “much ministry.”
So Martha’s many distracting tasks may not have been the dinner table, but rather, the overwhelming work of ministry. The word diakonia is also the root of the word for the ecclesiastical office of “deacon” in the early church. Perhaps the distraction Martha was experiencing was related to her ministerial function rather than her domestic function.
Perhaps there is opportunity here to cast this story in a completely new light.
- What if Martha’s chief complaint isn’t that Mary is failing to help with the housework, but rather that she isn’t keeping up her half of the ministerial duties in the parish they lead together? Is Mary spending too much time “in the office studying” and leaving Martha to do all the pastoral care, administrative work, and worship preparation alone?
- What if, instead of putting these two women in opposition to one another, we focus on the amazing fact that these two women were remembered by Luke’s community as beloved disciples of Jesus and leaders in the Jesus movement. Had they become, by the time of Luke’s writing around the year 75, deacons who co-led an early Christian community or house church out of their home in Bethany?
Given all of this re-envisioning of a familiar, how does it inform and enrich our understanding of our call to live as disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? What does it mean for how women have been restricted from leadership roles for the majority of the tradition?
I can’t help but think about how long it has taken for those who proclaim the Christian faith to come to a point in which women are given the same opportunities as men. As they say, we have come a long way baby. But I am gravely aware that these changes are very recent and limited to my own perspective as a citizen of the United States. Women have had the right to vote in my country only since 1920. Less than 100 years! And the Methodist Church, one of the few denominations that ordains women, has been doing so only since 1956. That is 60 years, less than a generation. Furthermore, these decisions and other human rights are constantly in danger of being reversed by those who do not believe women should have equal rights with men. We must not take the current status for granted.
In the vast majority of Christian faith and practice around the world, women are still denied a place among the ordained clergy leadership in the church. But the United Methodist Church has been at the forefront of changing this. As we celebrate 60 years of the ordination of women in the United Methodist Church, we are seeing progress in women in leadership in church planting. At the national interdenominational summit on church planting, Exponential, held in Orlando, Florida, in April of 2016, the United Methodist Church’s church-planting division, Path I, held a pre-conference meeting especially for women called to church planting.
The Rev. Dr. Candace M. Lewis, Associate General Secretary of the New Church Starts Division of Discipleship Ministries and Executive Director of Path I, said the story of Mary and Martha reminds her that women in leadership must, like our Biblical female forerunners, have the confidence to do the work of leading and serving in all areas of leadership in the church. The theme of their gathering was “Women in Church Planting Called by God to Lead and Serve.” Women gathered and claimed their sense of call and encouraged each other to be fearless in living out their call to lead and serve. In doing so, says Dr. Lewis, “we create space in congregations for knowing that Jesus invites the gifts of all people to the work of leadership.” Dr. Lewis says she hopes and prays that women in ministry can continue to be confident and courageous in Jesus’ invitation to service by both the “Mary’s” and the “Martha’s” among us.
I am continuously amazed and inspired by the leadership and witness not only of Mary, Martha, Phoebe, Lydia, Mary, the mother of Jesus, but of many other women from the Old and New Testaments, as well as Christian women in history and in our current day.
- Who has served as an inspiration and example of courageous leadership for women in your church?
- Are there women whose faith and practice helped to shape you in your discipleship? Can you share a few stories of the impact of women’s leadership on your life personally?
- What can you do to encourage, empower, and equip the young women and girls in your church to take their place of leadership for the future of the denomination?