Sunday’s Gospel reading (Luke 10:38-42) is so familiar, many will be surprised it occurs only in Luke:
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.”
As I sit with this story, I am left with more questions than answers.
“Mary” is obviously a very common name at the time. So much so that we have to repeat that there is no reason to support the Mary in this story being the Mary Magdalene (feast day this Friday) of Luke 8:2 (and every Gospel). But, how common is Martha? In John’s Gospel, there is a Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus. These live in Bethany (John 11:1). In our story in Luke, there is no mention of Bethany. A standard “critical literacy” question is: “who is missing?” Any Sunday-school child would immediately shout out that Lazarus is missing in Luke’s story. But is Luke’s “Martha and Mary” even the same “Martha and Mary” found in John’s Gospel? [Hence my question: how common is the name, “Martha”?]
The story begins with Martha welcoming Jesus into her home. That immediately pulls us up short. Or should. Certainly “into her home” is missing from many manuscript traditions. Metzger argues “No motive is apparent for the deletion of the phrase into her house’ if it were present in the text originally.” Well that argument is clearly out of date. Bruce J. Malina’s Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels titles this pericope “Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role among Jesus’ Followers“.
If a male was present, the phrase “her house” is strange (which may account for its omission in important Greek manuscripts). So also is a reception into a house by a woman.
Martha is a householder. And we notice that Jesus criticises her as he does other householders in Luke.
Bruce Malina continues:
By sitting and listening to the teacher, Mary was acting like a male!
To conclude this post: I was aware of the theory that the Lazarus death-and-resurrection story in John is based on the Lazarus parable in Luke, but it was in researching around some of my questions above that I came across a paper by Keith L. Yoder From Luke to John: Lazarus, Mary and Martha in the Fourth Gospel arguing “that John knew Luke, and that he used and creatively reworked the literary material available to him there.” Certainly, if you are interested in that discussion, that paper is well worth a look.
I come away, holding many of my unanswered questions, thinking that the Sunday Gospel is not primarily about contemplation versus action, that it probably is a far more shocking story than our usual anodyne reading of it, and that hospitality and focusing on the guest is probably a central Middle-Eastern core within this story. In this story the guest we welcome is…
After tweeting this post, I received the following helpful links:
A Provocation: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Luke 10:38-42
Martha and Mary – thoughts from the week
image source: Mary and Martha by Dr. He Qi