As they continued their travel, Jesus entered a village. A woman by the name of Martha welcomed him and made him feel quite at home. She had a sister, Mary, who sat before the Master, hanging on every word he said. But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. "Master, don't you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand."
The Master said, "Martha, dear Martha, you're fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it -- it's the main course, and won't be taken from her."
<The Message >
1. Here in Wisconsin the United Methodist Women just finished their annual School of Christian Mission. One of this year's studies is that of Jesus and the Courageous Women. I recommend the text of the same name as that study to you as a creative way to look at the women associated with Jesus and the early church. Elsa Tamez has done an excellent job of helping us enter the world of the women in Jesus' life through a midrash based on Lydia. Other resources can be found at http://www.WisconsinUMC.org/SOCM.
Here are two paragraphs from the book as an encouragement to read the whole.
"I can tell by the way the stories are told that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus very much. ...Jesus entered the house like a member of the family and felt right at home with them. He sat down to talk with Mary, who listened attentively while Martha complained to him about taking her sister away from important chores. Jesus tenderly scolded her [note, according to Alois Stoger the repetition of the name indicates sympathy, solicitude and love], "Martha, Martha", he said, and counseled her to also take advantage of the opportunity to learn. This is a right that is always being taken away from us as women. We feel an atmosphere of friendship in this scene. I, Lydia, as a seller of purple cloth, leader of the Christian community, and head of my household, sometimes feel like Martha, overworked and anxious. Like Martha, I forget about my own needs, and feel that I can't get everything done. But then I remember this story. I begin to calm down and do what is within my reach, giving priority to those things that will most fulfill me as a woman, as a person of dignity. Jesus gives good advice to all women through this story of Martha and Mary!
"Frequently this story is interpreted as an instruction to divide prayer time or time devoted to being in Jesus' presence from time given to action and activities. Actually the most profound lesson of this story is that Jesus frees women from traditional roles and gives them equal opportunity to participate with the men in the movement."
2. From Margaret Wold's book, Women of Faith and Spirit , come these words to help move us out of the temptation to set Martha and Mary against one another.
"The relationship of Martha and Mary is rare indeed, for theirs reveals sister interaction in a way found nowhere else in the Scriptures. Mary can refuse to assume her responsibility as cohostess with her sister; Martha can be frustrated and irritated with her sister and complain about her to a friend. At the same time, we see them exchanging leadership roles gracefully, deferring to each other in public, and appearing to think with one mind while they maintain independence and autonomy.
"If there was rivalry between them, it seemed to arise from their calling as disciples that motivated them to want the best for Jesus. Martha wanted his needs met in the way in which she was most comfortable, and Mary fulfilled her vocation in the manner which best suited her. Both were trying to "outdo one another in showing honor" to Jesus. They seemed to be of one spirit in that desire.
"Sisterhood, as demonstrated by Martha and Mary, allows each one's gifts to be identified and used in ministry. Sometimes that involves conflict as roles are examined, affirmed, or rejected, or changed. Conflict is a part of life and must be confronted if life is to move on and change to meet a changing world.
"Conflict can be viewed as harmful, like a disease, or as the natural result of closeness. If we adopt the medical model, we will see it as something to be treated and cured. But if we understand it as the friction that occurs when two objects or persons are in close working contact, then it can be accepted as the natural outcome of intimacy. Any two people who live and work in close daily contact are bound to rub each other the wrong way at times.
"Our need, as sisters, is to learn how to deal with conflict so that it can lead us to greater understanding and closeness and not to alienation and separation.
"Fortunate are the women who have a blood sister and who know how to build on that relationship. If blood sisters are not part of our history, then we can find close ties with our spiritual sisters. In either case we are learning how to relate to each other as "sisters" as well as "daughters."
3. This scene is also a window on societal and ecclesiastical issues of authority. In the book, Private Women, Public Meals , by Kathleen E. Corley we hear, "In his scenes involving women and meals, Luke upholds the traditional, submissive role for Greco-Roman women. Women do appear in large numbers in his Gospel, and women followers of Jesus support his work out of their personal wealth. Even former slave women and prostitutes, such as the woman who anoints Jesus, and other 'sinners' respond to Jesus' message. Nonetheless, although Luke encourages the presence of women of varying social classes in his community, he uses meal terminology to encourage subtly the more traditional Greco-Roman role for women."
Much of the way in which we view the authority of women in the church today can be found in the way we approach this story of Martha and Mary. I pray we will honor all the dynamics which go into being a leader of a "house church" and encourage more.
It is always helpful to remind ourselves that in John's gospel Martha articulates a confession every much as clear and deep at Peter's.
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