Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)
“Could you please explain what Jesus meant by having life more abundantly?” Lori asked our instructor politely. We were in our second year of seminary and we were studying John’s Gospel. One of our assignments was to read the gospel once per week during the length of our course. That assignment sounded easy enough but it required more time than most of us expected. We already had the equivalent of 20-24 credit hours for our semester and naturally, our workload required all of our time. I can be a fast reader but when reading the Bible my reading typically slows down quite a bit because I want to chew on the material carefully. My pace would be very different if I were reading a John Grisham novel. Lori’s question is one of many questions that puzzle us. She and her husband were planning to be missionaries and like all the rest of us in class, we were eager to learn material that pertained to Jesus’ teachings and story, because we were all planning to teach it to others in our ministries. Do we have something in common with Mary when she’s in the presence of Jesus while in Martha’s home?
In this episode that Luke gives us right after Jesus’ exchange with the Old Testament lawyer, we often hear this taught as if Jesus has another fable that he wants to lay out. We imagine that Jesus is dispensing some proverbial wisdom, something in which a pithy story can produce the moral he wants us to recognize. In the case of Martha and Mary we often hear a preacher or teacher convey the moral of this story as, “It’s better not to let things in life distract you from investing in your relationship with God.” While this moral is certainly reasonable to accept, it severely misses the greater point or principle Luke is giving through his gospel about Jesus.
For starters, devotion to God is nothing new, especially to Martha and Mary. Skimming the Old Testament will provide multiple stories that teach Israel that very lesson. Instead, in Luke 10:38-42 were able to look behind the superficial scenes of Jesus’ ministry. We find two women for whom the modern reader will almost always find one distinct line which separates Martha and Mary. We only hear from Martha and Jesus in this episode, and Martha is complaining to Jesus that Mary is being irresponsible and that she is left to do all of the work. Today, we would naturally think of Martha as someone who is bitter or calloused and is more concerned with her own behavior than she is concerned with adoring Jesus who is right there in her home. Yet, Martha was right! But how?
After all, it was Martha who opened her home to Jesus. Doesn’t that count for something? She made it possible that Jesus was even welcomed for supper. Let’s get to the heart of the matter, though. While Jesus told Martha that she was worried and upset about many things (we might have made others think that Martha was OCD!), Jesus also told Martha that Mary had chosen what is better…not what is correct. Martha was right!! How could Jesus be insensitive to a brave woman, especially in Jewish culture, who had the faith and the nerve to invite Jesus into her own home?
As it continues to be with many cultures, men and women enjoy the company of one another in separate rooms of a home. Women sit and do what they will in one room and likewise, men sit and do what they do in a room separate from the women. Martha’s home is a typical home where there was a room especially for the public and this is where Jesus was. There were obviously other rooms in her home. There were a kitchen and other areas exclusive to women. Of course, the bedroom was the one place where a man and a woman shared daily life. Yet, men and women didn’t mix or mingle otherwise. There were clear lines drawn in Jewish culture for separating the two sexes, and everyone knew it, especially, Martha! She was right. Who did Mary think she was, as she dared to cross the line into the room where only the men were, along with Jesus? Mary was doing exactly what Lori was doing in class in seminary. She was probing Jesus for answers not just to satisfy her curiosities and risk scorn from Jewish men, but to teach and preach to others in the future, in the kingdom of God!
What’s going on here? Why is Luke inserting this quaint setting and its trivial characters (except for Jesus, of course) into his extremely important gospel? [Did you know that Luke used the longest scroll he could get his hands on? As meticulous as Luke was, he surely wouldn’t waste space with a trite little fable would he?] Jesus knows Israel’s mores, it’s cultural taboos, it’s do’s and do not’s. Yet, Jesus has been coloring outside of Israel’s lines and he continues to do so with Mary. No, Jesus isn’t suggesting that Mary start a movement that excludes men. Right then, he was defining what life in the new kingdom of God can look like and that both men and women will have significantly respectable and honorable roles within that kingdom. Martha was right on point when she was complaining to Jesus. According to the current culture, Mary was acting shamefully and her place was to be separate from that of males. Jesus knew Martha was right, too. Yet, Jesus wasn’t sent to Israel to reinforce all the societal mores that were currently in place. And, Jesus knew that Mary chose the better, the one life that was already present because Jesus was there with Messianic authority.
We have no problem with Lori asking the instructor to expound on Jesus’ teachings. Our culture doesn’t draw a line there to designate that behavior as shameful. Jesus respected Jewish society, no doubt, but he also established a kingdom, which for many appeared sloppy, shameful, backward, unlearned, and even grotesque. Many just had no idea that Jesus was coloring outside many of Israel’s current social lines, and that many in the world would eventually recognize his kingdom as an incredible work of art.
There are so many things that Jesus has done for this world that we know nothing about, and many may even attribute those things to others in history that were famously opposed to who they thought Jesus was. One question we might ask ourselves today is, “Are we complaining about a way of life that we think has lines that are clearly drawn, and might we be complaining about some Marys who might appear to be rebelling against that way of life?” We may be as right as Martha was. Yet, we also may be missing out on what some modern Marys know is better!