The section of the Gospel which is set in this Sunday’s lectionary (Luke 10:38-42) is found only in Luke’s Gospel. It recounts a time when Jesus was in the house of Mary and Martha. The story, by tradition, takes place in Bethany, in the house of Lazarus. The Gospel of Luke doesn’t provide this location, however; the text simply notes that Jesus “entered a certain village” (10:38).
The tradition clearly depends on identifying the Mary and Martha in the story, with the sisters of Lazarus, as noted in John 11:1. Luke doesn’t draw this conclusion in what he writes. In fact, in the last geographical reference provided (9:52–56), he has placed Jesus and his followers in Samaria, far to the north–at the starting point of the long journey towards Jerusalem. Were these women Samaritans? That would be highly unlikely. Better, in my view, to see this as a “floating story” which Luke, for his own reasons, placed here– immediately after the story about the wounded traveller on the road to Jericho.
The manner of Jesus’ interaction with these women is often noted. Jesus treats Mary as a student, sitting at his feet, learning of God’s ways. Commentators regularly focus on this feature, as a significant action by Mary, affirmed by Jesus. Women can rightly be regarded as disciples. The traditional of twelve men as the closest followers of Jesus, probably shaped by the idea that the 12 men correlated with the 12 tribes of Israel, is another tradition that depends on reading the Gospels in a particular way.
A significant characteristic of Luke’s story of Jesus is the emphasis he places upon women within the story. Feminist scholars have noted the prominence accorded to women as followers of Jesus as well as in the ongoing Jesus movement. Here is a short study that Elizabeth and I wrote on this theme (expanded in recent times with additional questions and references), which might be helpful in preparing for this coming Sunday.
Read Luke 8:1–3. Luke emphasizes that Jesus travelled with women as well as men. Alongside this, we need to note some comments attributed to rabbis in ancient Jewish literature. Rabbi Jose ben Johanan of Jerusalem (a 2nd century rabbi) said:” Let your house be opened wide, and let the needy be members of your household; and talk not much with womankind.” (Mishnah, Aboth 1.5)
An older saying stated: “What conduct is such that transgresses Jewish custom? If a woman goes out with her hair unbound, or spins in the street, or speaks with any man.” (Mishnah, Ketuboth 6.6)
These sayings, of course, come from a couple of centuries later–the Mishnah was compiled around 220 CE, by Rabbi Judah the Prince. But it seems quite likely, from the attributions provided, that such sayings were already present in the oral traditions taught by the rabbis in earlier years. Perhaps they might reflect something of what was thought, at least by some, at the time of Jesus?
In the light of these sayings, what can we say about the kind of effect this must have had on those who saw him traveling in this way?
What changes in attitudes and habits would male disciples need to make when women became part of Jesus’ traveling group?
It was not uncommon for Jesus to talk in public with women. Can you name some occasions when he did so?
A famous instance is reported in John 4. Read John 4:9 (most commentators note that this verse is important). Now read John 4:27 (this verse is usually not highlighted as being significant.)
What does this tell us about the attitude of Jesus towards women?
Read again verse 39. The reference to Mary “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” presents Mary as a student of Jesus the rabbi (teacher). Paul refers to his education “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3); in the Mishnah, we are told that “Yose Ben Yoezer used to say: let thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst” (Aboth 1.4).
The three disciples present at the transfiguration of Jesus are instructed to “listen to him” (Luke 9:35; Matt 17:5); the verb, akouein, is the same used in the description of Mary (10:39), and indeed Jesus himself regularly instructs his followers to listen (Mark 4:3, 9, 23; Matt 11:15; 15:10; 18:17; 21:33; Luke 6:27; 8:8, 18; 22.10, 31; John 10:16). The implication of the verb is not simply to listen casually, but to pay careful, sustained attention to what is being said.
In the light of these comments, how do you understand what Mary is doing in this story?
Read Luke 8:43–48. Notice how Jesus insists that he talk to this woman (8:45–46). What kinds of risks was Jesus taking by talking in public to a woman who was clearly unclean?
Notice also what words Jesus spoke to the woman (8:48). Who else does Jesus commend for their faith? (See Luke 7:9; 7:50; 17:19; 18:42.) What do they all have in common? (Hint: Where do they stand in relation to the Holiness which was at the heart of Judaism?) What is the significance of putting forward such people as role models of faith?
Now read Luke 10:38–42. Notice that Mary sat in the traditional position of the pupil, at the feet of the master (Luke 10:39).
What does this say about Jesus’ attitude towards teaching women?
Compare this with a saying of Ben Azzai (another 2nd century rabbi), who is remembered to have said: “A man ought to give his daughter a knowledge of the Law so that if she must drink the bitter water, she may know that the merit that she has acquired would hold her punishment in suspense.” (Mishnah, Sotah 3.4)
But Rabbi Eliezer (late 1st century) is claimed to have decreed: “If any man gives his daughter a knowledge of the Law, it is as though he taught her lechery.” (Mishnah, Sotah 3.4) In the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer is further reported as having said: “It is better to burn the Torah than to teach it to women” (J.Sotah 19a.7). In yet another rabbinic writing, it is said: “All are qualified to be among the seven [who read the Torah in synagogue on the Sabbath morning], even a minor and a woman. But a woman should not be allowed to come forward to read the Torah in public.” (T.Meg. 4.11,226)
Jesus commended Mary for her interest in the Gospel, and affirmed that she chose “the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Compare this with a traditional rabbinic saying in the Mishnah: “Anything found by a wife and the work of her hands belongs to her husband and during her lifetime he has the use of her inheritance.” (Mishnah, Ketuboth 6.1)
Read again verse 40. In this verse, Martha is said (in the NRSV) to be “distracted by her many tasks”; in the NIV, this phrase is translated “[she] was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made“; the CEV renders it “[she] was worried about all that had to be done“; years ago, the Good News Bible offered “Martha upset over all the work she had to do“.
Are these translations all affected by gender-bias in the translation? The Greek word found here, translated as “task” or “preparations” or “work” is diakonia, which is a key word in Luke’s two volumes. It is used to describe what the mother-in-law of Simon Peter does, after Jesus healed her from her fever (4:39). It is used to describe what the women who travelled with Jesus were doing (8:3), supporting Jesus and the whole group through the gifting of their resources.
It describes the role of the “seven men of good standing, full,of the spirit and of wisdom”, who were appointed to “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2–4). It is the word used to describe how the church in Antioch provided support to “the believers living in Judea” (Acts 11:29; 12:25) and the word that Paul uses to characterise his whole ministry (Acts 20:24; 21:19). And, of course, it describes what the Son of Man himself does: “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:25–27).
The role undertaken by Martha, then, is an important role in the early church; in time, those who “waited on table” and, indeed, those who “provided out of their resources”, would be recognised as leaders in the slowly-evolving church. Paul places diakonous alongside of episkopous (overseers) in writing to the Philippians (Phil 1:1); Timothy and Erastus, two companions of Paul in his missionary efforts, are described by the noun diakonoi (Acts 19:22; the NRSV and the NIV both render the word as “helpers”).
By the late first century, the person writing a letter in the name of Paul recognised those undertaking diaconal roles as leaders in the church: “those who serve well as deacons (diakonēsantes) gain a good standing for themselves and greet boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 3:8–13). It could well be that Luke was compiling his orderly account at around the same time (late first century) as this letter was written.
How does this information change the way that you view Martha in this story?
Read Acts 1:12–14. Which people are identified by name?
Who is there but not named?
What else does Luke tell us about the mother of Jesus? (Read Luke 1:26–56; 2:15–20; 8:19–21.)
Who might the other women be? (Read back to Luke 8:1–3; 23:49; 23:55; 24:1–9.)
Where did the group meet?
Why do you think that Mary was the only female named in this passage? What might that suggest about her role in the group?
Read Acts 16:11–15. How is Lydia described in this passage?
What does the phrase “godfearer” suggest to you? Where else is it used in Acts? (Check 13:16; 13:50; 16:14; 17:4; 17:17; 18:7.)
What kind of gathering is described in 16:13–14?
What does this suggest about the role of women in religion?
What does the occupation of Lydia suggest about her financial means? About her status in the city?
Who would be included in “her household” (16:15)?
What does this suggest about her position in society?
What does this passage suggest about Lydia as a role model for conversion and acceptance of the Gospel?
Read Acts 21:8–9. Where else has Philip been involved in the story of Acts? (Check back into chapters 6–8.) What values and qualities did he have there?
How does this passage describe the daughters of Philip? (Read Acts 21:9.)
Who else has been described as a “prophet” in Luke’s story? What role do they play?
Can you recall any other female prophets? (Look especially at Luke 2:36.) What special contributions do they make to Luke’s story of Jesus and his followers?
In the light of all these passages that we have looked at in Luke-Acts, what can we say about the significance of women in the ministry of Jesus? in the early Christian movement? in the community of which Luke was a part?
This study forms part of a 64-page study booklet, From Learners to Leaders: an exploration of the Gospel for Year C, by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine (available in hardcopy directly from myself at email@example.com)