Luke 10:38-42 (CEV)
38 The Lord and his disciples were traveling along and came to a village. When they got there, a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat down in front of the Lord and was listening to what he said. 40 Martha was worried about all that had to be done. Finally, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!”
41 The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, 42 but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Knowing Your Place
A friend of mine visited yesterday that I haven’t seen in years. He’s a retired priest, and so the conversation eventually (inevitably) turned to spiritual things, and we got talking about this passage. His thoughts intrigued me, so I decided I’d share them with you this morning.
He explained that in Middle Eastern culture, you never come right out and ask a question directly. Always, he says, the question that is ostensibly being asked is only a side-bar of the question that’s actually being asked. I think I had known this before, but I hadn’t ever thought of it in the context of this passage, because this was one of those passages that I was told the answer to so firmly it never crossed my mind to think about it from any other angle.
I asked him what he thought was going on with this passage, and he brought up the idea that in this culture, at this time, a woman had no right to sit at the feet of a rabbi. Mary’s choice of where to be, her assumption that she was allowed even in the room with the rabbi, was beyond arrogance – it bordered on insolence. If Mary was the younger sister (and somehow my big sister antennae thinks that she might have been) than Martha had a responsibility to make sure that her sister was following the rules – that she wouldn’t make a fool of herself, or bring disgrace on the family.
And if that was the case, then Martha’s sideways question was really, “Jesus – what do I do about my wayward sister??? Would you please find a face-saving way to get her out of this situation before any more harm is done?”
And if that was the case, then this story – which has been used to berate women for serving and bludgeon and shame them into spending more time in prayer – was never meant to lead us to that conclusion.
If that was the case, then this story is about whether or not a woman has a place at the feet of Jesus.
Whether someone society deems as ‘less than’ has a right to learn from the rabbi. (I’m not saying Mary was less than, but the society she lived in certainly thought she was.)
Whether, indeed, it is a disgrace for a ‘second class citizen’ to seek knowledge about God. (I’m not saying Mary was a ‘second class citizen’ but that would have probably been better than how she was seen back in the day.)
And the answer to these questions from Jesus is an emphatic no.
Jesus’ answer, I think, lends credence to my friend’s observation. “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things…” He doesn’t say anything about the cooking or the dishes. He sees the depth of her worry about protocol and correctness and societal rules and expectations and shame and disgrace and acknowledges all of them in these short words.
“[B]ut only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.” Apparently none of that matters, though. Apparently only one thing is necessary. A space for Mary at Jesus’ feet.
A space for you and for me at Jesus’ feet, no matter what the rules we grew up read like.
“Only one thing is necessary …” That we create a space that is big enough for all of the last and the lost and the least to find themselves seated at Jesus’ feet, able to hear clearly all that the Kingdom of Heaven has to offer to each of them.
Now if only “putting them in their place” looked more like this beautiful story of grace…Journal Questions:
- Have you read this passage before? If so, what conclusions had you drawn from it?
- How does this reading of this passage change your perspective on this story?
- Have you ever felt like you weren’t worthy to sit at Jesus’ feet?
- What if this was a story of invitation? What would happen if you replaced Mary’s name with your name? “[………] has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from them.” What would it look like for you to take up a place at the feet of Jesus, firm in this invitation that you belong, that you are loved, that you are welcome?