I have always loved the biblical account of Jesus visiting Martha’s home. I loved that Martha was bossy, as my young self tended to be, and Jesus was still nice to her. I loved that Mary vividly represented where my priority should be: sitting at Jesus’s feet, listening to him speak. In my first children’s Bible, this is a passage I covered in yellow highlighter. Over the years, in two other Bibles, I underlined these verses in pen. I reread this story repeatedly through high school, college, and especially graduate school — a prime place to become “worried and distracted by many things” — and I reminded myself, “Don’t be a Martha.” This tendency followed me to my career as an English professor. I often stayed up far too late reading or searching online for more information that would enrich my students’ classroom experience. My initial black-and-white understanding of Martha as bad and Mary as good was complicated by the realities of adulthood and a demanding job.
As I learned more about Jewish society and the Gospel writers’ culture, what began standing out was that Martha was right. She was doing exactly what she was supposed to do as a woman in her time, culture, and religion.
Martha is right on two counts. First, she is right about what women are supposed to do during a household visit. In the Middle East, hospitality was (and is) an important value, and women were primarily responsible for creating domestic spaces that welcomed others. Imagine how much more intense this pressure to exhibit hospitality must have felt when your guest is the famous rabbi who performs miracles, teaches with extraordinary wisdom, and appears to be the Messiah himself?
Martha is also right in not doing what Mary was doing: sitting “at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (Luke 10:39). The laws governing the allowable interactions between men and women were strict and elaborate. Women were certainly not welcome to join a teaching session with a respected rabbi and his disciples — particularly when any domestic preparations were necessary. So Martha is right on two counts when she calls out, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:40).
I’m amazed that Martha gets to talk to Jesus this way. It sounds like she’s yelling a command. Martha exhibits an unusual level of comfort here. She seems to know that Jesus, though he is a famous rabbi and the Messiah, is also a friend that she can speak to as a family member. She has a trusting relationship with him that allows her to voice her complaint and emotions honestly.
Likewise, Jesus has every cultural right to rebuke Martha for ordering him around. Yet when he repeats her name — “Martha, Martha” — I hear a calming voice. What Jesus tells her is absolutely amazing: “Martha, Martha . . . you are worried and upset about many things, 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 10:41-42). Jesus validates Mary’s action of sitting at his feet and listening to him teach! That is astonishing. The disciples had to be shocked. Martha may have been speechless; she isn’t recorded saying anything else.
This is the part that usually gets attention in sermons. Mary was doing something highly unusual that Jesus affirmed, thus marking a new respect for women in Jewish, soon-to-be-Christian, society. Women are suddenly welcome in the theological circle. As the disciples ask their teacher questions, Mary is allowed to voice her questions and thoughts, too. I can’t imagine that Jesus told Mary she wasn’t allowed to speak until they convened an all-women discussion group. Jesus rewards Mary’s initiative to break social and religious boundaries, holding her decidedly undomestic behavior up as exemplary.
Jesus’s words free Martha in ways that are just as amazing. He indicates that she does not need to be ruled by any cultural or religious “rules” about what women are supposed to do in this situation. Jesus doesn’t dismiss or rebuke the “many things” that Martha is “worried and upset” about. Preparing food, pouring drinks, and setting up the dining area are fine, “but few things are needed—or indeed only one.” Listening to and learning from Jesus are paramount. The meal will get eaten, and the dishes will need to be washed. The cups will be cleared from the table, and crumbs will be swept from the floor. Apart from this daily work, Mary is learning first-hand from the Messiah and is being called, along with the men, to a new relationship with God. Despite Martha’s wishes, Jesus will not tell Mary to walk away from that. In fact, he hopes that Martha will preoccupy herself with the most important occupation for all Christ’s followers — knowing God.
This passage of Scripture leads me to consider the roles or preoccupations that take up space in my life. How has culture — especially academic or Christian culture — implicitly told me to shape my goals, energies, or time?
Academic life can sweep any diligent student or teacher away on a sea of never-ending work. There is always more to read and research, more information that I could add to that paper or classroom activity. My drive to succeed beyond what was necessary — beyond my calling to simply teach well — led to lack of sleep, frequent sinus infections, and sometimes despair that there would ever be enough time to be a person outside of my job. I was rewarded for my over-diligence, recognized as effective for operating in Martha mode. Yet rather than enjoying work I felt called to do, I grew resentful that academic culture left no time to sit and rest. Although I was busy with good things, I found little time to feed my soul. Excelling in my role of professor had overtaken my primary calling of being a Christian person.
While academic institutions can exert pressure to lean into professional life in an unhealthy way, churches often stumble in a different direction by offering spiritually shallow events for women. In my church experience, I have attended singles groups that treat men and women differently, inviting men’s small groups into what appeared to be deeper theological discussion while keeping women’s groups busy with life application topics or relationship dynamics. Once, after moving to a new town, I visited a church and saw the name of their single women’s group in the bulletin: “God’s Princesses.” (I chose not to attend that one!) When I have found Christian groups that grant women the same spiritual and intellectual dignity as men, then I breathe a sigh of relief. I’m not boxed in for being a girl. I can grow deeper as a disciple there.
Culture — whether religious, academic, or an intersection of the two — implicitly guides women into specific boxes. Each church and college campus quietly promotes its own type of box, and women passively absorb the gender ideals their communities value. Many of these ideals are good, worthwhile, and “Christian” — just like Martha’s busyness. This passage from Luke’s gospel is a reminder that we can tell Jesus, even very honestly, how we feel about the cultural and professional expectations we encounter. We can complain to him that some situation or some institution is asking too much of us, asking too little of us, or failing to see our value beyond a gender-specific box. When she relates to Jesus with deep honesty, we see Jesus calling Martha away from cultural expectations and toward a life shaped by him. At the deepest level, our Christian selves should be shaped primarily by our own time spent, like Mary and Martha, in conversation with Jesus. Although Jesus can’t walk into our kitchen or office today, he is still with us through the presence of the Holy Spirit. We can listen to the Spirit repeating our name, calling us to a life of holy balance.
Scripture references taken from the New Revised Standard Version.