There’s a well-known passage found in Luke’s gospel. It’s the short account of Jesus and the disciples’ visit to the town of Martha and Mary. The account is found in Luke 10:38-42:
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
When this text is usually taught and preached, there is one point that takes prominence: We need not get caught up in doing so many things for Jesus, but rather we are personally called to sit at his feet so that we might listen and learn from him. So let’s take time to schedule in some kind of personal devotional time of reading Scripture and prayer.
Something of that nature.
And this is not terribly off-base, knowing our call to listen to and seek the Lord. But I’m not so sure this is the primary message of this little portion found in Luke’s gospel.
Rather, here is what I think we should consider as the central point.
As with any gospel writer, or any author of Scripture for that matter, Luke is crafting his story to teach certain things. Obviously, it’s a gospel first and foremost, meaning it’s the story that announces the coming kingdom of God and fulfilment of Israel’s story in the Messiah, who is Jesus.
But within this larger gospel account, there are other important points that come through. For instance, Luke has a very strong emphasis on the empowering work of the Spirit in the life of Jesus, the Messiah. This same theme is carried forth in Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts. The community of God’s people are being empowered in a very similar way to their Lord and Messiah (I actually talk about this in a recent podcast episode).
I believe Luke also has a strong focus on prayer, as seen in places like: a) 11:5-8, the parable of the friend’s request for bread, which interestingly follows Jesus’ teaching of what we call the Lord’s prayer and b) 18:1-8, the parable of the persistent widow which is told for this reason: to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
Even more, a third emphasis of Luke’s gospel is that of the role of women in the ministry of Jesus. We see such examples in Luke 8:1-3. Here we are told of 3 specific women – Mary Magdelene, Joanna and Susanna – not to mention that we are told there were many other women (vs3). The reason they are following – These women were helping to support them out of their own means (also vs3).
Now, of course, this could be made out to say that the women were simply in a support role, as in a servant role (though I believe all ministry is about serving, but I refer to ‘serving’ as it might stand in many people’s mind – some kind of inferior ministry role). But for Luke to mention that a Jewish Rabbi-Teacher had many women following him, well, this is a bit scandalous. ‘Say what’, one might ask? But Luke’s trying to tell us something here – these weren’t just a few women at the end of a long queue of men disciples. They were carrying some kind of significant role in this context and culture.
Not only that, but when we get to the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, we are reminded of these same women who were following Jesus. You can see this in Luke 23:26-56, particularly vs27, 49 and 55. The interesting thing to note is that, while all of the men disciples (barring John) had pretty much abandoned Jesus at this point, we find these women still present. I’m not slamming the men disciples, as I recognise this would have been a much easier path for my own self. I’m simply stating that in this passion narrative, Luke reminds us of this large group of women remaining with Christ, even as he heads towards his death and burial.
He’s trying to teach us something here.
And, of course, we know women were the first to the open tomb and the first to encounter the risen Messiah!
So, all this to lay out as we head back to the original passage we were considering: Luke 10:38-42. What I believe is going on here is Luke has taken the time to highlight that Mary is not staying confined to the usual women’s quarters. She has chosen well, in spite of the fact that women were not supposed to be sitting at the feet of a Rabbi-Teacher.
Martha was in line with the expectation of Jewish women. Mary took the courageous step towards becoming a great disciple of the Messiah, Jesus. This was recognised in the act of sitting at Jesus’ feet.
Personally, I’ve been aware of Luke’s emphasis on women throughout his gospel (and even in Acts). But up until now, I had never recognised it in this passage from 10:38-42. It was this week that I was awakened to this short account as I was reading N.T. Wright’s work, Jesus and the Victory of God.
Of course, we see hints throughout the Scripture, even in the Old Testament, of women being used as leaders, prophetesses, etc. I think this goes back to Eve being called a suitable helper for Adam (a similar name given to Yahweh himself at times), not to mention that being drawn out of Adam’s side does not point to a secondary helper role but one of mutuality and togetherness.
And now the trajectory is set in place even more as we head into the arrival of God’s kingly Messiah, ushering in a whole new creation order through his life, death and resurrection. It’s a new creation where there are no longer social distinctions to be found in the roles, callings and giftings of God’s people. It’s no longer about male or female, Jew or Gentile, young or old, slave or free. Of course, we do have many social distinctions – but they do not stand as indicators of the roles and gifts amongst the ekklesia of Christ.
Luke’s done well to point this out. And I’m glad to see yet another highlight in his account. It reminds us that it does help to dig a little deeper into the Jewish context and culture of this most beautiful and God-breathed text that we have in Scripture.
A pastor of mine taught that the “many things” Martha worried about was many items of food to put on a feast and that the “one thing necessary” was one thing of food to satisfy hunger. Though he didn’t go the same place as this article, I think that dovetails nicely with and lends support for its point. We spiritualize the “one thing” somewhat too quickly.