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.’ (Luke 10:38-42)
What do we do about women who are anti-feminist? It’s reasonably well known now, though it could be shared more widely, that Mary here is in the position of a rabbinical student, sitting at the feet of her teacher as Paul sat at the feet of the wise and deliberative Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). She has chosen theological/spiritual study over the traditional domestic role of women that Martha espouses; and Jesus affirms her choice. We can reasonably surmise that she is not just learning for academic interest, but that what she learns from Jesus is meant to be used later. After all, the main command in 1 Timothy 2:11 is ‘Let a woman learn’, possibly the least obeyed biblical command in history apart from ‘Do not fear’.
I really don’t see how you can read this story in Luke with an open and informed mind, and not understand that it supports the training of women for ministry, or any other vocation to which God calls them. But my concern today is with the harassed and anxious Martha. Though we have no evidence that she was a mother or even married (perhaps she and Mary were widows, which might lead to them living with their brother?), she strikes me as the typical Jewish mother: love is expressed through food, and everything in the home must be perfect (I may be slightly biased here, having had a Jewish mother myself, whose example I have given up trying to follow…).
Of course Martha’s self-appointed task is going to be harder if Mary, instead of helping her, is doing some serious theological study. But need she feel so threatened by her sister’s embrace of a new role? I am reminded of the woman who allegedly hit a suffragette over the head with her handbag, crying ‘I thank God I am a womanly woman!’. From the vote, through women engineers and CEOs, to women bishops, every advance in women’s status and options has been blocked, not only by men who fear the loss of privilege, but by women who are strangely afraid of losing their ‘special’ sphere. But why should the fact that I am called to be a writer, or some other woman to be a surgeon, stop women who want to, and can afford to (and there are precious few of them nowadays) from staying at home, with or without children, and being the angel in the house? No one is trying to make it illegal for women not to have a job outside the home. I just don’t understand why some women want to resist the development of other women. Nor, it seems here, does Jesus. However much Martha wants to feed him up, he has ‘food to eat that you do not know about… to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work’ (John 4:32-4). And in this case, the will of the one who sent him, seems to be to give a woman education. Let no one take it away from her.