Whenever I hear the story of Mary and Martha, I find myself thinking about two of my aunts—my dad’s sisters—who in an earlier age were called old maids. I think especially of my dad’s oldest sister. She was the oldest daughter in a family of 11 children. She only went to high school for a year, because getting there proved to be just too difficult (it was six miles away). She spent her life taking care of her younger siblings. Then as they left the home, she continued to care for her parents, and the one sister and brother who remained on the farm. Of course, she also took care of us—her nieces and nephews when we came to visit. When her mother and brother died in the space of a year and a half, Dorothy suddenly was left without much to do.
Up until that point, and this is the early seventies, Dorothy would have been over 60, she had never worked outside the home. If memory serves me correctly, she didn’t even have a social security card. Her life had been spent caring for others—cooking, cleaning, tending the garden and the yard, feeding her family and making sure there were plenty of cookies in the cookie jar when her young nephews came to visit.
Even her evenings were busy. When I was a little boy I remember her always crocheting bandages when we were visiting in the evening or doing some other sewing. Her hands were always busy.
Dorothy was always the quiet one. She could make conversation but for the most part she was content to listen and to make sure that everyone’s needs were taken care of. When people ask me what the Mennonites are like. After I’ve joked about being “high-tech” Amish, or said something about pacifism, I usually bring up the example of my aunt Dorothy. To me she epitomizes, for good and ill, the Mennonite tradition. A willingness to serve, to put others first, but also perhaps a little too much humility.
What makes me think of Mary and Martha when I think of Dorothy is because if she is Martha, her younger sister—my aunt Lucy—was Mary, always in the middle of the excitement, interested in conversation with whoever might be visiting, willing to allow a meal to go unprepared, or the dishes washed afterwards, in favor of entertaining a guest. I can perfectly imagine Aunt Lucy neglecting meal preparation to listen to a guest; what I can’t imagine is my Aunt Dorothy raising her voice in complaint, at least, not when any of her nieces or nephews were around.
The story of Mary and Martha has borne an incredible weight in the history of Christianity. Often, Mary and Martha are presented as two different models of the Christian life—Martha exemplifies the active life, the life in the world, while Mary represents the contemplative, the one who withdraws from the world in order to focus on her relationship with Jesus Christ. In the terms of the Christian tradition, Mary was the nun, Martha, the laywoman. Mary had chosen the better part. It’s hard not to hear this story without thinking of women’s roles. What does it have to say about the role of women in early Christianity? Which role was better, more appropriate? That of the quiet disciple, or the one who served?
It’s difficult not to think in those terms even today. And in the midst of our busy lives, we might think wistfully about an opportunity to sit and think, or meditate or listen to a teacher, instead of doing all the daily tasks we need to do. And certainly, many of us occasionally feel guilty for not following the model Mary seems to provide and sit at Jesus’ feet. Others of course see our responsibility elsewhere—to be in the kitchen, cooking, serving, cleaning.
But there’s more to the story than that. Jesus has just been teaching his disciples and the crowd about discipleship. Today’s reading comes immediately after last week’s gospel, the story of the Good Samaritan and the demand to love God and love neighbor. It also comes after Jesus has sent out seventy disciples to spread the word. Like those other texts, today’s gospel is also about discipleship.
The story itself, short as it is, raises all kinds of questions. Mary and Martha, two sisters, welcome Jesus into their home. It would seem that Martha is the householder, she is acting as host (until Jesus takes over the show), bustling around to provide the hospitality that is both natural and necessary in this culture. Is it the same Mary and Martha as the pair mentioned by John—Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus? If so, we have Martha acting quite differently here. In John, she takes Jesus to task for not being present during her brother’s time of need.
But there are more puzzles. Jesus’ response to Martha is ambiguous. The words we heard were: “there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.” An alternative reading puts it “few things are necessary, or only one thing.” That raises the possibility that instead of commending Mary for her decision to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him, Jesus is telling Martha that a simple meal, one dish will suffice. So perhaps instead of Jesus criticizing Martha for expecting another set of hands in the kitchen, he is telling her to lighten up, to not cook so much so that she will have time to sit at Jesus’ feet as well. By the way, the language behind the description of Martha as being distracted by many tasks, is the language of ministry, of service, of diakonia.
But there’s another dynamic that I find interesting. On the one hand, Martha, who is shown being just a little bit uppity, complaining, demanding, and on the other hand the picture of a docile, quiet Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet in a posture of submission. Is that part of Luke’s message as well? That women, if they are to be Jesus’ disciples should shut up and behave themselves? Perhaps we should go even further and suggest that Luke is not only implying female disciples are to be docile, obedient, and quiet, but men are as well. The task of the disciple is to follow, to do their work with diligence and without complaint, and to let the leaders lead.
To view Mary and Martha as exemplars as models of the contemplative and the active lives is to fail to listen to their story carefully and to listen to how Luke tells their story. Mary and Martha, whether from Bethany or not, whether they were the sisters of Lazarus or not, were clearly important enough in the early Christian tradition to have stories told about them. When you think of how many of Jesus’ disciples, how many of the twelve, we know nothing about, that in itself is remarkable.
But what makes their story remarkable? Two women invite a man, perhaps a number of men, into their home. That’s radical behavior. One goes about the business of preparing a meal, the other chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him. Then we have some sort of conflict, who knows what really took place, what really was said, but Jesus praises Mary, and perhaps, just perhaps, tells Martha not to work so hard, to sit down herself and listen, too.
Mary and Martha are or would be, Jesus’ disciples. We don’t see them again, but we can take for granted that Jesus coming to them, their opening their home to him, was not simply a sign of hospitality, but a sign of their commitment to him. Whether they left their home and followed him as he made his way to Jerusalem, whether they were among those women who Luke tells us followed Jesus from Galilee and stood by at the crucifixion, we don’t know.
We are, all of us, called to be Jesus’ disciples. What that means may be different for each of us. For some, for some of the time, it may mean sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening. At times, it means rolling up our sleeves and serving dinner. At other times it may mean something quite different. What it does mean, and this Jesus makes clear in the gospels, is a radical reorientation of our lives, upsetting the normal way we do things. To invite Jesus into our lives, and yes, into our homes, means changing everything.