Boaz made another visit to Tuggeranong Uniting Church today, all the way from the first century, accompanied by his wife Deborah. They engaged in a discussion of what they had heard about the scene in the house of Mary and Martha (that we know about because it is told in Luke 10:38–42). The dialogue was written and presented by the Rev. Elizabeth Raine and the Rev. Dr John Squires.
Elizabeth begins. This gospel passage about Mary and Martha is very well-known one. It often provokes some strong responses, especially from women who have followed more traditional and domestic lifestyles. Many feel a sneaking sympathy with Martha.
After all, the reading says that Jesus and his disciples went to Martha’s house for a meal. Even if the guests were only Jesus and the twelve apostles, that still makes dinner for 15 people. Dinner for that many is not easy to prepare, especially in a first century kitchen consisting of an open fire, and maybe a small brick oven outside. And she is doing it by herself. Her sister Mary is sitting on the floor at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. No wonder Martha is upset.
Today we attempt to explore this story as we listen to a dialogue between two dinner guests at the house of Martha and Mary, their neighbours Boaz and Deborah.
Boaz: I am shocked. Outraged, even. I was expecting a dinner where the men gather, are served by the women, and then sit together discussing learned things, like the Torah. Such a spectacle we saw! Martha should not have allowed it. And that Jesus fellow, what was he thinking? Aiding and abetting the decay of society as we know it. And I thought he was a holy man. Deborah, I trust this has not given you any ideas.
Deborah: Aiding and abetting the decay of society! Boaz, you are just old fashioned. You need to get with the times. I am excited! I am feeling liberated! I am worthy of being taught by the great teacher. How can you think treating women equally is a problem?
Lots of reasons. For example, you know that in the synagogue, “a woman should not be allowed to come forward to read the Torah in public.” (Tosefta Megillah 4.11,226). So this notion of equality is not in accord with our practices and beliefs.
And I thought Mary’s attitude, claiming this equality, was nothing short of rebellious. She will be wanting to learn to read before you know it, and then what? Educated women are a menace. They get above their station in life and then refuse to be submissive. In fact, as Rabbi Eliezer has decreed: “If any man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law, it is as though he taught her lechery.” (Mishnah, Sotah 3.4)
Well, I thought Mary’s sitting at the feet of Jesus was a wonderful demonstration of how women have the right to be taught.If Jesus had no problem with it, why do you?
Look, I am not saying that SOME learning for women might not be a bad thing. But with a household to run, there are other duties that need to be done. How is learning going to help Mary prepare a big dinner? You musthave heard the murmurings of the disciples. They were not impressed by Mary’s action.
Well, I don’t think it is any business of the disciples, or ours, or anyone else’s if Mary wished to learn from Jesus.
Martha had a problem with it. I heard her ask Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Martha knows what the true role of women should be. The true role of women is doing the kind of things that, I understand, some people have called ‘domestic duties’.
Domestic duties ??!!??
Yes, you know what our scrolls tell us: “She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls … She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.” (Proverbs 31)
Yes, yes, yes…I know all of that. But what did Jesus say when she sat at his feet, expecting to be taught by him? You seem to be skipping over that bit.
Listen, Deborah, we are talking about The Law here. We are talking about the whole stability of society. If you do not want to show appropriate regard for The Law, then what are you regarding?
How can you condone an action which is clearly in breach of the very respect and honour that the Law requires we show it? How can a woman, sitting at the feet of a teacher of the law, be showing respect and honour? She should have been in the kitchen, with Martha!
Well, I believe that Jesus was very clear that Mary, by sitting at his feet and learning, had chosen the good part, and it would not be taken from her.
And Martha, her elder sister, made it clear that she had chosen the lazy path, and was not fulfilling her duties. How was dinner going to get on the table if we all sat about distracted by Jesus’ teaching? How can you be so sure that Mary was doing the right thing?
Well, it is true that Martha is very generous with her hospitality – nothing but the best is laid before Jesus and his followers. I agree that this is an important part of our traditions, to be generous in any hospitality to our guests.
And why couldn’t the male disciples take a turn in the kitchen? Why couldn’t they contribute to the generous hospitality of the occasion? Why must women always serve? Isn’t it time Peter swept the floor and Thomas did the dishes? Or James and John stirred the soup and served the bread?
What nonsense! Men serving women, indeed!! You sound just like that Rabbi Hillel with your liberal notions.
Wait a minute: Jesus serves men and women and feedsthem. Look at his recent actions. Apparently he managed to feed a whole crowd, men, woman and children recently with only five loaves and two fish. And the male disciples cleaned up afterwards. So where does that leave your argument?
Surely this is an exaggeration. I am sure women did most of the serving and tidying up. After all, I heard that they followed Jesus around and ministered to him out of their own resources. This clearly included the cooking and cleaning.
Really, you are most frustrating. There are precedents in our faith, you know, for women leaders and prophets. Look at Deborah the judge. Or Huldah, the prophet. Or what about the mother of Jesus himself? I heard she said….
Oh, you make it all sound very normal indeed, for women to be spouting revolutionary leadership talk. But just think about the way Mary went about it. Sitting with the men. Sitting on the floor at the feet of a man. This isn’t customary. And in public like that! Shocking!!
Well, I suppose it wasn’t the best image she might have presented of herself. I was a little taken aback myself to see her sitting at the feet of a man who wasn’t related to her. In some ways, it could be seen as shameful.
But still – why must it be so? Why can’t the sexes be equals?
Well, they just aren’t. What about how Jesus spoke to Martha? Surely this was harsh. She must have been very hurt.
Yes, I can see that. Here was Martha, wanting to provide the best dinner, and Mary as her sister should have helped. She did have some obligation to attend to the guests.
Yes. “Martha, Martha, you are distracted with too much serving”, he said. Or something like that. Well, of course she was, getting a dinner for all those people. What did he expect?
It may not have been meant unkindly. Jesus doesn’t need to defend traditional roles of women. There are plenty of people, just like you to do that. But he does need to defend our right to learn, to be disciples, to be on the same level as the men.
Mary’s right to learn is precisely what Jesus is protecting by refusing to send her into the kitchen. Jesus will not let dinner take that good thing away from Mary. What justice would there be if he did?
And what if Martha has wanted to sit by Jesus, too? Where is the fairness for Martha here? Then what have happened to dinner?
Well, I suppose there is that. But perhaps our real problem is that we are trying to put the two sisters and the two things they are doing in a stark contrast. We see one who puts aside her distractions to listen to Jesus, and we see another who worries herself to distraction with trying to make dinner for all of them.
Mary and Martha are sisters, not enemies. They complement each other. Why, one could even argue that they are two parts of a legitimate whole that includes them both.
Hmmmmm, I am not sure what you mean. I know they are sisters, but I am missing your point…
Let me put it another way. Martha engaged herself in the necessary task of serving others. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, in the necessary task of spiritual and faithful learning. And both of them surely did each thing out of love for Jesus.
That is a very good point. I am thinking that l would have to say both learning and serving are necessary to be a righteous and holy person.
I don’t think the only lesson here is about traditional duty versus anew feminist wave. Surely the two sisters represent together who we should be as people. Listening to Jesus is not opposed to serving Jesus. Jesus didn’t tell Martha she was doing the wrong thing. He said Mary has chosen the more needful thing at that point. Surely it was Martha’s anxiety he was criticising, not her service. We all needed to eat.
But I thought this complimentary togetherness was not about a single person, but about society, male and female, we have different roles which complement each other. So I don’t have to wash the dishes to be whole anymore than you have to learn to read the Torah.
Nonsense. How many men in our scripture offer hospitality? Look at Abraham. And what about when David seeks food for the troops? He asks Nabal, not his wife – though she was the one who showed sense when she took the food to David. I mean, really. Are you honestly trying to tell me that if you as a man did nothing but contemplate the Law, with no other activity, you would be a happy, content person? If we did one thing constantly at the expense of the other, we would be far from well-rounded people.
Well, I know we need both hospitality and learning. No argument there.
And I hope you noticed the word that Jesus used to describe Martha’s serving. He said Martha was performing a “diakonia”, and I understand this is an important word Jesus uses to describe his disciples. Jesus was surely suggesting that her hospitality was a ministry, that it was something sacred.
Perhaps part of the genius of Jesus is that he can hold this stuff together himself. He reminds those serving to be attentive and not distracted. He reminds those who listen carefully to his words about the necessity of service.
Back to the present … Elizabeth resumes as the *preacher* for the day.
I am going to ask you a question. Don’t think about it too much. When you look for a role model in this story as to how you express yourfaith, who do you pick? Martha or Mary? Which one do you act like most of the time and is the same one you chose? What does that say to you?
Many, many people see their faith in practical terms— making tea, organising social afternoons, looking after people’s material needs and so on. Across the world churches would not function without those who are busy with the activities that go towards keeping a building open, running programmes, and maintaining the life of the church asa visible entity in the eyes of the membership and the community.
There is no question that the gift of hospitality is as important as the gift of learning. There is also no question that Mary’s action would still be the more unusual one. Did Jesus know this? Do those of us serving perhaps need to be reminded of the grounding provided by being attentive to spiritual needs?
With all the challenges that we face in today’s world, we can’t lose sight of the need for God’s people to make time to grow their own personal faith in a way that works for them. We know from research that this is what unchurched people seek when they come through our doors.
What will they find? Mary or Martha? Or will they find both, well-rounded disciples ready to share the love of God with all?