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Jesus, Mary, and Martha: A Cultural Shift for Women

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The Story of Jesus, Mary, and Martha has a revolutionary declaration that some may miss if read with modern, Western eyes. For the modern-day woman, the right to learn and to read the Bible is a given. For that reason, readers today miss how transformative this story would have been for women at the time and the cultural shift beginning to take place.

(For a deeper dive, download my Bible Study on this story.)

The Story of Jesus, Mary, and Martha

The entire story fits into five verses, Luke 10:38-42. A woman named Martha welcomes Jesus into her home. We presume she also welcomes his entire entourage since it would have been culturally inappropriate not to. Martha’s sister, Mary (known also as Mary of Bethany), sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching. The text next tells us that Martha is distracted with much serving. Martha is busy trying to be hospitable and serve her honored guests and His friends, and Mary is not helping her. She then complains to Jesus and asks him to tell Mary to get off her bum and help her.

Jesus responds in a very unexpected way. He seemingly rebukes Martha telling her she is anxious and troubled about many things. He defends Mary and declares “Mary has chosen the good portion, that will not be taken from her.”

Hospitality in the Ancient World

Martha’s role in this story isn’t about conforming to gender roles of cooking and serving. If we let our interpretation of the story stay there, we miss the deeper messages about culture’s role in our faith. Martha was conforming to cultural expectations of hospitality, a far cry from hospitality in modern American culture.

If you have an honored guest come speak to a gathering of friends and family, you can serve coffee and pastries and call it a day. No one would bat an eye. That would have been utterly unacceptable in the ancient Near East. These ancient expectations of hospitality can still be found in cultures today.

If I were to visit a friend in my Americanized neighborhood, I might only get offered a cup of coffee (and the coffee-lover in me would be so happy with that). It might also be considered rude of me to drop by without calling first and pre-planning the visit. Ah, but I knew I could visit my good friend from Afghanistan anytime. When I would go (and it was usually unannounced), it didn’t matter the hour of the day, he and his wife would put together an amazing spread of food. The homemade yogurt was particularly delicious, and that tea!! Sorry, I digress, but I hope you get my point.

For Martha, doing the bare minimum was not an option for her culturally. She would have been extravagant in her hospitality, and it is what the culture would have expected of the hosts. Now imagine the amount of stress and anxiety she was under when you consider the guest she was serving!!

Martha, Martha

Jesus begins his response with “Martha, Martha.” When I first read that, my heart sank for her, but truth be told, I wasn’t there so I don’t know the tone in which it was said. What I do know is that when a person’s name is mentioned twice in the Bible, it is usually because something extraordinary is about to happen with that individual or their prodigy.

“Abraham, Abraham”

“Jacob, Jacob”

“Moses, Moses”

“Samuel, Samuel”

“Simon, Simon”

“Martha, Martha” is in good company. And something extraordinary was going to happen with Martha. Jesus would free Martha from the stress brought about by cultural expectations. He would free Martha to seek Him through His Word, a right kept from women of the time and for centuries afterward.

Martha’s transformation is evident in her reactions after Lazarus’ death in John 11:17-27. This isn’t a woman who feels bitter from being chided. This is a woman who has taken his teachings in. She knows exactly who her Lord is and what she has learned.

Mary Sitting at Jesus’ Feet

In this account, we find Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. While that may be literal, it is also likely it is an idiom describing formal discipleship. In Acts 22:3, we learn that Paul was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel.” One can tell from the Epistles, that Paul was a very educated man. His level of education was a direct result of his training to be a Pharisee. Paul would have been considered a scholar of his time.

So when we read that Mary of Bethany was sitting at his feet, the early church would have understood a more formal student-teacher relationship. Either way, it would have raised eyebrows if this was a one-time thing for Mary or if she was formally learning the scriptures. As we learned in the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, men generally would not be “hanging out” with women. So the idea of Mary sitting in a room full of mostly men would have been scandalous.

If she was receiving an education and being entrusted with Scripture, that would have been over the top. To quote a prominent Rabbi who lived a bit later after Jesus but reflects the societal view of the times,

“Let the Law be burned rather than entrusted to a woman”

….or how about this one?

“A woman’s wisdom is limited to the handling of the distaff.”

Enter Jesus. Not only is he letting a woman learn while sitting at his feet, but he also absolves her from her cultural responsibilities.

Mary of Bethany Made a Choice

In Jesus’ response to Martha, he says two extraordinary things about Mary: She has chosen the good portion, and it will not be taken from her.

Mary chose the good portion. The good portion is making Jesus the center of your attention and eating up every word He has for you. Also note, however, that Jesus uses the word “chose.” Mary could have chosen to do what society required of her, be a good host and serve her guests. That would have been the easy and comfortable thing to do.

Today, A young woman may get distracted and leave the serving to her mom while she is enthralled with the conversation in the living room. It would not have been the same for a woman in the ancient Near East. A woman in Afghanistan doesn’t just forget to wear a Hijab before heading outside. The indigenous servants in Guatemala don’t just forget that they can’t join the family conversation at the dining table.

Mary made a choice, a difficult one. And sure, at this point, Jesus had other female disciples, and it might have been easier for Mary than other women in her culture, but it was still a deliberate choice. You don’t get rid of traditions and cultural expectations that easily. To choose to leave Martha and go to Jesus was deliberate on Mary’s part and Jesus praises her for it.

It Will Not Be Taken from Her

Jesus not only praises Mary for making that choice but He tells Martha that it “will not be taken from her.”

Make no mistake. This is not a statement just directed at Martha. It is a statement directed to the whole room, most of whom would have been men. It had to be because it was such an extraordinary decree in light of the perception that learning the Word of God was mostly just for men. At this point, Jesus’ male disciples would have been used to women learning from Jesus, but now there is another layer to it. When a woman chooses to learn, it will not be taken from her. In light of how much at odds that would have been in the prevailing culture, the message would have been heard loud and clear.

The story of Mary and Martha is so transformative for the role of women setting the stage for the early church. Women like Priscilla in the book of Acts were beneficiaries of this declaration, but we benefit as well.

As you take in this story, ask yourself, what cultural and societal expectations am I letting get in the way of choosing Jesus and His Word? Our culture is way different than the one Mary and Martha found themselves in, but we have cultural and societal expectations we conform to. Those expectations may not necessarily in and of themselves be bad. Sometimes they can align with God’s will, but sometimes we have to make the choice Mary did. Following Jesus is all about being willing to transcend those expectations and live in the presence of the Lord.

To dive deeper into this account, download my Bible Study on the Mary and Martha. Or you can get the full study, “Jesus Empowers Women” which includes this lesson and four others.

Check out the articles below to learn more about Jesus and women.

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