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Are you a Mary or Martha?

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  

Let’s be honest, this is a bit of a dirty move.

We enter this scene as Martha is bustling about, readying her home for her visitors; cleaning, preparing food, setting up beds, and much more.  Martha clearly thinks her sister should be helping her with the overwhelming tasks of hospitality she’s taking on, rather than sitting with the disciples at the feet of their friend and teacher (a role reserved for men in their culture). Since her sister doesn’t seem to notice, she brings it up directly with Jesus. ‘Don’t you care that my sister is leaving all the work to me? Make her help me!” Let’s be honest, this is a bit of a dirty move. Rather than talking to her sister directly, she shames her in front of Jesus and all the disciples. She obviously expects Jesus to agree with her. 

What I hear in Jesus’s response is not a rebuke, but as a gentle response to what she’s feeling. He uses this as a teaching moment for her and everyone who is listening in to this very public scene that Martha has set. Rather than answer Martha’s shaming of Mary by shaming her in return, Jesus names what’s truly important in this situation. Rather than diminish Martha’s worries, Jesus instead affirms that the alternative posture that Mary has chosen is valid.  Martha’s concerns are real and reasonable, but aren’t Jesus’ priority. Martha doesn’t ‘need’ to fulfil all of these household chores as much as she ‘needs’ to learn from his teachings.

There are countless scriptures that call us to serve.

What Jesus is saying is that both Mary and Martha can be disciples, (just the same as any of his male disciples), and if anyone thinks otherwise, Jesus makes it clear to everyone that the ability for women to learn as his disciples would not be taken from them. 

It’s not that Martha was wrong or less than because she served and wanted to provide the best hospitality - there are countless scriptures that call us to serve and care for one another.  In fact, the whole reason Jesus in her home is to receive hospitality - he’s depending on her to feed and house himself and his disciples. Likewise, Mary should not be held up in opposition to Martha as a pious and devoted exemplar of a “Godly woman’. 

The idea that we should be one or the other actually makes no sense when we consider that we are called to love God and love each other.  We can and should be both, not in some stereotypical way, but by earnestly seeking out how God is calling us to both take our time in learning from him, and also to go out and serve the community around us. 

Jesus went out of his way to ensure that they were allowed every right to discipleship.

Martha and Mary are not stereotypes, they’re not tropes or models of the ideal Christian women. They’re real people who lived alongside Jesus and who had frustrations and hopes and grief and deep faith. They washed dishes and were sometimes too blunt and they loved to learn at the feet of their friend and teacher. Their story is human and complex and subversive; by their actions they countered gender norms and theological traditions that did not give women a voice, and limited women from receiving friendship and teaching from men. Jesus went out of his way to ensure that they were allowed every right to discipleship, and saw them as beloved as they served and learned from him as the unique women that they were created to be. 

Our identities are God given.

It’s okay if you’re a Mary and you truly come alive in extended times of prayer and you get wonderfully lost in studying scripture and listening for God’s voice, and yet don’t serve on every committee in the church. It’s okay too if you’re a Martha and just don’t have it in you to get up at dawn to pray, and would rather spend your time in the kitchen after church, washing up everyone’s coffee mugs. It’s okay to sometimes be both or neither. Our identities are God given, beautiful, and pleasing to Him. 

So whether you’re a Martha or a Mary, a man or a woman, be who God made you to be! Use the talents he gives you, with no shame, no comparisons, and no striving to be something you’re not, but with a good holy dose of subverting simplistic ideas of what others think we should be. Know that you are beloved, and that your desire to serve and learn will not be taken from you.

Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash

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