Mary and Martha

[UPDATE: I’ve just found a wonderful, far more in-depth and scholarly version of my exposition here

The tirelessly enthusiastic Carla Harding posted yesterday on Mary and Martha. It’s a good post, and it paints a great picture of her life at the moment; the busyness and the struggle to hold onto a spiritual life when things get manic. I made the mistake of posting a smart-alecky comment at the end of her post, and I want to publicly apologise.

Carla, your post captures the difficulty of balance in a busy life really well. It reflects the earnestness of your heart to search after God first and foremost. I want to encourage you in that above everything else, and I’m sorry I said what I did in your comment stream.

I’m going to go on and try to offer an explanation, but this is not intended to diminish the apology. I don’t get to rain on peoples parades, regardless of my personal bugbears. Sorry Carla!


The story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10 is one of the most popular stories in the bible. It is the source of many a homily, and if you grow up in the church like I have, you have heard something like the following countless times:

Jesus is visiting the house of Martha and her sister Mary. Martha busies herself with preparations for the meal, while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him. When Martha complains that she could do with a little help, Jesus tells her that Mary is doing the better thing: it is better to spend time with Jesus than to be busy with too much work.

OK, that is a ridiculous paraphrase, I’m sorry.

And its not that there isn’t value in this message. It’s what Carla describes so well; our busy lives do get in the way of our relationship with God. Faith can so easily get squeezed out due to the pressures of our clock-driven society. We can look at this passage and be reminded of that need for balance. That is an important lesson to learn.

What winds me up though, is that this interpretation of the passage is heard much more often than the main point I believe Luke was trying to convey. It is a valuable homily, but nowhere near as radical or as challenging as the contextual message.

Jesus is visiting the house of two women. There is no mention of husbands here; these are two unmarried women, and he is quite happy to sit in their house, have dinner with them and teach his disciples there. This is something unheard of in righteous Jewish practice of the time.
What’s more, while Martha is clearly doing a woman’s role in the women’s part of the house, Mary is in with the men! And she’s sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to him!

That phrase, ‘sat at [Jesus’] feet’ is key. Luke uses it again, as part of a preach of Paul’s in Acts 22. It means to learn from, to be a disciple of, a rabbi. Paul ‘sat at the feet of Gamaliel’, a leading Pharisee of the time. It is probably Gamaliel that taught Paul to be a Pharisee himself.

Luke deliberately links the two phrases, he deliberately uses Martha’s indignation to emphasise the countercultural context of the situation. Rabbis didn’t go into the houses of single women. They certainly didn’t teach women. Yet here is Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, learning to be a disciple with the men. And when Martha complains that Mary should be in the women’s part of the house with her, helping prepare the meal as a good subservient woman should, Jesus says that Mary has “chosen what is better”. Jesus is not passive in Mary’s learning here; he actively affirms it.

One of the main augments used against women in Christian ministry is that Jesus didn’t explicitly say anything on it. Yes he did; he says it here.

Like Carla, I find the classic homily taken from this passage helpful at times. But I do wish we heard the real, radical contextual meaning of the passage more often than we do. Still, that’s no reason for me to down the words of others.
Apologies again Carla.

3 thoughts on “Mary and Martha

  1. You are very sweet. You really did not need to do this though your willingness to is a real testament to your walk with God. Your thoughts on Mary & Martha are great! I was chatting about the very same thing with Wendy from the states yesterday. I have loved this part of Luke for many years and I guess I blogged mid conversation rather than starting from scratch. I have taken no offense! I think you’re lovely 😀 xc

  2. Jude says:

    Hey: a- I just found you on blog woo haa..
    b- thank you for this! A few of us have been really wrestling over the last 24 hours with being allowed to sit at the feet of jesus and listen, let alone lead as women (not the Anglican church as a whole which is the most embracing denomination at its best- just some individual responses we weren’t quite ready for). This is a real encouragement. You’re great!

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