Luke 10:38 - 11:1 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 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." 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.1 Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
I have heard this text preached on a number of occasions, often by way of comparing and contrasting Martha’s distraction and obsession with menial tasks (i.e. “many things”) compared to the personal piety and contentment embodied by Mary (i.e. her attention to “only one thing”). We are then encouraged to be less like Martha and more like Mary, less distracted and more focused, less domestic and more pious. These are all true, for sure, especially within a culture obsessed with the idols of schedules and the worship of busyness. Indeed, the devil often dresses in the wardrobe of hurry and worry. I am certainly one who needs to be reminded and heed the warnings of homilies that goad me towards Mary-like character and spiritual discipline. I could paraphrase Paul, we are all hurried and busy, and I am the chief of distraction.
However, I wonder if there is more to Luke’s incorporation of this narrative. I even wonder if this text, which directly follows Jesus’ telling of the parable of the Good Samaritan and the elevation of a marginalized people, is yet another Lukan attempt to underscore the social implications of Jesus’ gospel. In other words, while Martha is about the domestic chores of a first-century woman, Jesus celebrates Mary’s bold move to sit at the feet of Jesus as though a student of her rabbi- a rare and radical move on her part. Yet again, Luke is less prescriptive, i.e. be like Mary, and more descriptive, i.e. this is what the kingdom of God looks like and who is invited to participate. Jesus once again is the great liberator from systems of oppression and exclusion. Jesus announces the kingdom of God as that which moves beyond gender roles and social classes and invites all to participate in what God is doing in and through Jesus the Messiah. The revolutionary and prophetic statement, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her,” is then echoed in the declarations of Paul, who writes that in Jesus there is neither Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female- all are one in Christ.
Maybe this is the greater caution of this narrative- being too distracted by the assumptions of our culture and social systems of our communities that we fail to take notice that in Jesus an open invitation has been extended to a wider fellowship then we ever dreamed possible- even permissible. Then the traditional warnings may be appropriate- be not Martha, but celebrate and engage the Marys of this world.
In this light, I have been daily challenged to expand my hermeneutical horizon and engage less familiar and sometimes suppressed voices from the margins. The words of Jürgen Moltmann are advantageous in this regard, “Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes- promise, exodus, resurrection, and spirit- come alive.”