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There’s Something About Martha And Mary?

Martha Mary Jesus

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 Well that argument is clearly out of date.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

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image source: Mary and Martha by Dr. He Qi

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4 Responses to There’s Something About Martha And Mary?

  1. When I read this story, I always feel like Martha was putting more emphasis on the physical appearance than on the fact that her guest would soon be the Savior of her soul. I mean, Jesus Christ was sitting at her table!!!
    I understand that there are and were certain customs that they followed in those days and today but I have a feeling that all my tradition would fly out the window (once I made sure He was as comfortable as I could) I would immediately plop down and just listen to Him to talk. Mary was showing reverence for Christ, doing what so many of us neglect to do in the busyness of our lives. She sat down at the feet of Jesus because nothing else was more important than Christ in her heart at that moment.
    I hope that makes some sort of sense to you 🙂

    • Thanks, Beth. That makes lots of sense. It was what I was pointing towards at the end of my post. Hospitality is about giving attention to the guest. I so often stress we confuse means and end (goal). Martha (and we can all be like this) seems to be focusing on all that needs doing (means) to provide hospitality. Mary is doing the “only one thing” – giving attention to the guest. Blessings.

  2. Thank you for saying “more questions than answers”… I thought that too. Why does Martha ask Jesus to say something to Mary, rather than ask her sister directly? What are the “many things” she is distracted by… more than just making the preparations that are mentioned here?

    This passage is often read with Abraham’s hospitality (where he runs about making preparations, *but* then spends time peacefully with his guests).. was the (gentle) chiding by Jesus against Martha’s busy-ness, or just her doing it too long (as a result of being a naturally-anxious type of person, or worried at the consequences of Mary taking on the role of a disciple??).

    And is the merry little word-play in Greek (merimnas vs merida) deliberate?

    • Thanks, Mark. A quick look does seem to confirm your point about the word play:
      μεριμνάω (merimnas) appears to have the sense of divided – a part, separated from the whole.
      μερίς (merida) means a part, portion.
      I doubt this is coincidence.

      Blessings.

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