“The Better Part”:
A Sermon on Luke 10:38-42
Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC
July 17, 2022
In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
How do we read this story, a story of two women, sisters, each of whom has a relationship with Jesus, and each of whom is close to him? Do we take the well-travelled road that poor busy Martha is struggling in the kitchen, while devout, spiritual Mary sits at Jesus’s feet, learning from him? Do we nod as Jesus rebukes Martha, and tells her that Mary is to be preferred? Or is this traditional view—one that I learned in my Roman Catholic boyhood—a little too easy?
Every time I read this story in preparation for tonight, I felt a familiarity resonating with me that I couldn’t quite place. Until I found it. The story of Martha and Mary is so brief that it’s easy to treat it as a moral lesson: Choose the better part, learn from Jesus, and pity poor, misguided Martha.
I don’t think that’s what the story is telling us at all. No, I think this story is about several critically important things in our Church, and, even more, in the world.
If we read Luke’s brief story in isolation, we don’t even know if this Martha and this Mary are the same women of Bethany that we meet in John’s Gospel. Most biblical scholars say that they are, and that makes sense to me. The stories we have of them echo each other.
In chapter 11 of John’s Gospel, it’s Martha who meets Jesus on his way to Lazarus’s tomb, while Mary stays at home. She greets him with the words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She then adds that “Even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus tells her that he is the resurrection and the life, and that all who believe in him will never die. He asks her if she believes this.
Martha simply replies “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Martha then leaves, calls Mary, and tells her that “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” Mary meets him, kneels at his feet, and says the exact words Martha had used to greet Jesus. Martha meets them at the tomb, and Jesus raises their brother from death into life.
Their greetings to Jesus after Lazarus’s death are identical. But like in today’s Gospel reading, Martha meets Jesus, reaffirms her faith in him, and then goes and makes sure that Mary is able to speak with him alone before going to the tomb. Mary, as in Luke, places herself at Jesus’s feet, and waits for Jesus to speak, or to act. We know from John that this Mary is the same woman who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair, and that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus.
So how is that these two sisters, so similar in some ways and so different in others, are contrasted to the approbation of the one, and the rebuke of the other? Again, I don’t think that this is what’s really going on here at all.
First, as Jane Terlesky points out, “Early feminist exegesis saw this text as liberating for women, a sort of “feminist manifesto of the rights of women to theological education,” as Jesus seems to be sanctioning Mary to leave the domestic realm and join the men at his feet,” in the traditional phrase “studying at so-and-so’s feet.” However, in a friendly corrective Mary Stromer Hanson points out that the Greek word “kai”—effectively, “and,” and translated as such in the king James Bible, strongly supports that both Martha and Mary studied with Jesus, along with any men, such as Lazarus, who might join them. As she writes, “sitting at the feet, as in Acts 22:3, is the traditional vocabulary of discipleship.” So both Martha and Mary are known as “sitters at the feet,” of, or disciples of ,Jesus.
Now Hanson’s book is titled The New Perspective on Mary and Martha (Wipf & Stock 2013), and her emphatic subtitle “Do Not Preach Mary and Martha Again Until You Read This” with an exclamation point, does make me hesitate to approach this text. But here we go.
Hanson argues that the silence of Mary and the lack of any context for Martha’s anxiety is less the traditional assumption that a meal is being prepared, and Mary is sitting and listening to Jesus while Martha bustles around with no help. Hanson maintains that Mary is not even present—she’s with the disciples, evangelizing and preaching, and that Martha is understandably anxious for her sister’s well-being, as the authorities are getting ready to pounce on Jesus and his supporters.
Now that anxiety of Martha’s fits better than that of a frustrated housekeeper, with a devout sister whose contemplation is valorized while the hard work of hospitality is all put upon the more practical sister. Hanson can point to our text today for some support; Martha describes Mary as having “left me to do all the work by herself.” Perhaps her ministry has, as Hanson argues, taken on a more public form than Martha’s. We do know that women followed Jesus on the road; Mary could well have joined them.
And Terlesky points out that Jesus does not dismiss Martha. Jesus addresses Martha in a particularly intimate way; he says her name twice, “Martha, Martha,” and, as Terlesky explains:
The double vocative stops us. It would stop Martha. It indicates an intimacy and focus on Martha and on whatever state she is in emotionally. An intimate double vocative like this is not dismissive. It is, instead, a gripping connector between two people – one who is saying, by employing the double vocative, “I’m listening. I am focused at this moment only on you,” and one who is the recipient of this focus. Mary and the other disciples, if they are there, can wait.”
Again, this fits the Jesus who, we are told by John loves all three of them—Martha, Mary and Lazarus. By listening, and pointing out that, whatever she may be doing, Mary is following God’s calling for her, Martha is reassured that what her sister is doing is in God’s service, is using her talents for the Kingdom of God, and is devoting Mary’s best self to the work that she is fit for.
So whether Mary is present or not, I think Hanson is right to contend that Mary is living out her calling, and Martha’s worries stemming from that fact are assuaged by Jesus. Martha is not slighted, or criticized—she is comforted by Jesus who affirms Mary’s calling, and by implication, Martha’s own.
It’s commonly held that that the creation of the deacon’s role dates back to Chapter 6 of Acts of the Apostles, to relieve the apostles from “serving at tables” and to free them to preach the word and teach. I suspect that Martha, and maybe Mary, got there first. That Martha is engaged in a servant ministry, like that of deacons in the Church to this very day seems very likely—Martha, like Mary, studied with Jesus, and, like Stephen, her calling would have been a hybrid—one of both service and of teaching, as we see Saint Stephen do before he is stoned to death for his preaching.
In fact, we see Martha serving in John 12: 2, and of course the word used to describe her distraction in verse 10:40 is “service”—diakonia, the word from which the diaconate gets its name.
We know that Martha is a householder, like her fellow deacon, Phoebe, mentioned in Romans, 16:1-2. Hanson also approvingly cites a 1996 article by Warren Carter, who argues that Martha is engaged in house church ministry.
Hanson further contends that “on this day, Martha is not overwhelmed in kitchen work, but she is burned out with diaconal work in her village[.], and that she is overworked by the demands of ministry.
Jesus’s affirming his care for Martha, Mary’s calling, and Martha’s own calling, is a powerful break from the gender roles of his time. But we shouldn’t view that fact with distrust; Luke himself states that many women were dedicated followers, traveling with Jesus, and providing for them out of their own resources, including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna.
Paul describes Priscilla and her husband Aquilla as “My co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus.” Priscilla is not mentioned as a deacon, but she is placed by Paul on a level with himself in their shared ministry.–in fact, she is more often mentioned before her husband when they are referred to by Paul.
The story of Mary and Martha is not one of a virtuous, contemplative sister and a lesser, practical, earthbound sister. It’s the story of two very different women, sisters, but whose gifts were different, and whose importance to the Church today is foundational. Just as Jesus himself served, Martha teaches us that our ministry is one of caring for the poor, the hungry, those who are in need. She calls us, with Jesus, to serve as our gifts allow us to, to find the calling to our own personal ministry, and to pursue that calling in faith and love.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.