As so often happens with scripture,
we tend to glide over the surface of this strange little story,
smoothing out the rough corners,
spackling over the cracks
and taping together the jagged edges that don’t quite meet--
believing that because it is familiar and known
we have it all figured out.
But all the spackle in the hardware store
can’t hide the fact
that this is still a strange little story.
On the surface,
Martha, the older sister, is busy with many things
on edge from welcoming Jesus and his disciples into her home,
perhaps more than a bit jealous of Mary
who leaves her with the dishes and the dust bunnies,
while she sits at the feet of the Master.
“Martha” has sometimes become a byword
for someone who’s,
a little too busy for her own good.
Someone who’s busy
and never lets you forget it.
Someone who volunteers to take on more and more,
and then wants to volunteer
As one preacher said,
Martha is a woman who
“interrupted Jesus to talk about chores.”
For some, a Martha is the quintessential martyr;
a woman whose good works
are dished up with a side of commentary,
and a pinch of complaint.
Teachings on this passage
often focus on the tension
between two approaches to discipleship, such as:
Living a Mary Life in a Martha World
The Practical Life of Service Vs. The Spiritual Life of Contemplation
To Do or To Be
discussions play into subtle
and sometimes not so subtle
stereotypes and tropes
about feminine jealousy,
The Jealous Sister
Competition Among Church Ladies
The Right Attitude for Women’s Service
exegesis of this passage proposes the rather obvious insight
that we are called to be
Martha and Mary.
We are called to integrate:
Listening and Doing;
Action and Contemplation;
Dwelling in the Word and Living out the Word
And the trick is,
to find balance
between the busy Martha and contemplative Mary
that lie within each of us.
Martha and Mary are even seen as models
for the pilgrim and heavenly Church—
the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.
we live as Martha, the pilgrim church,
but we strive for the heavenly Church to come,
as typified by Mary.
There is nothing wrong
with these interpretations,
except for the blatantly condescending ones,
and much to be said
for those that point out the need
to balance the tension between
action and reflection,
doing and being.
But scripture is seldom so easy,
So one dimensional.
Stories in scripture often need to be turned sideways
or even upside down to make sense,
and even the simplest and most straightforward
teachings of Jesus are rich and complex,
filled with invitation, challenge, and surprise.
This particular story has many textual variants.
There are verbs that may be translated more than one way
that can completely change the meaning;
there are disconnects that are not easy to explain away.
Why are Martha’s actions unsatisfactory?
In his own ministry,
Jesus emphasizes feeding people,
providing wine and bread and fish;
dining, sharing, offering radical hospitality
to the point where he and his disciples are criticized for it.
Why is Martha criticized for doing what Jesus himself did?
Even the interpretation that we should strive for balance
between contemplation and action is puzzling,
since in this passage, these options are seen as
with one option being approved
and the other
Mary has chosen the better path.
Is this, as many say,
a cautionary tale about the spiritual danger
of busy-ness severed from prayer, reflection, and study?
Or is it not really about Martha at all,
but an affirmation of women’s discipleship and study,
a formal blessing for women like Mary—
who choose to “sit at the Master’s feet” beside the men?
If so, then why the dialogue with Martha?
Is this the narration of an event in the life of Jesus,
presented as it happened,
or is it,
as Scripture scholars
Fiorenza and Reid, suggest, **
an incident that has been filtered,
re-imagined and shared
through the lens of Luke’s early Christian community;
a community that may have been struggling
to discern and define and re-define women’s roles
in leadership, study, and diakonia--service?
The text itself does not explicitly refer to a meal,
and it does not place Martha in the kitchen or behind a broom—
that is our own story,
our own image,
our own assumption.
The text, in fact, uses the word, “diakonia” for Martha’s work;
a word Luke uses eight times.
Diakoneo can mean waiting upon,
helping to support, doing the work, serving, preparation,
it can mean many things—
and, among them,
ministry in the name of the Church.
Is it possible that Martha’s distress
does not originate in cooking, cleaning, or being relegated to the kitchen
but in something deeper?
Martha’s state is typically translated as,
“distracted, overburdened, busy”
but the verb also commonly means,
“to be pulled or dragged away.”
Does Martha’s frustration
emerge from pain over a “pulling away”
or “taking away”
of her place and role in ministry?
Could this story reflect
a post-resurrection struggle in the evangelist’s community
over the proper ministerial roles for women—
active or docile?
leader or passive listener?
Is this passage a remnant?
A lingering memory from a community
that tamed the diaconal ministry of women,
while advocating for a more traditional feminine role?
Is Martha a cautionary tale for the overwhelmed?
Or do we hear in her,
the anguished voice of a woman
who sees her role and her ministerial responsibilities
being pulled away,
and calling on her sister in ministry to come to her support?
Is Mary the model of a bold disciple,
claiming her space among the men,
or is she a figure that illustrates
the importance of women keeping silence?
I don’t know.
And none of the brilliant scholars
who study this story know, either.
All we can do is view Mary and Martha and Jesus
through the eyes of faith
and the crucible of our experience
and reflect on the possibilities—
knowing and trusting
that Christ is with us in the reflection.
We can embrace and emulate
the sister’s close relationship with Jesus,
a friendship so deep that they trust him
with their anger,
We know that later, they trust him even unto death,
as he commanded their beloved Lazarus to exit the tomb.
We can give thanks for their courage in following Jesus.
We know that Martha and Mary,
like other women we meet in Scripture,
lived lives of boldness,
whatever else the world may say about them.
They sat at his feet, like Mary.
They said “Yes”,
like our Lady.
They argued for inclusion,
like the Syrophoenician woman.
They brought their friends to encounter Jesus,
like the woman at the well.
They offered financial support for mission,
They led house Churches,
They sang of justice and walked in faith,
and dreamed of a new and transformed world,
enlightened by the light of Christ.
What is the truth about Martha and Mary?
For me, it is enough to know that their faithfulness,
their commitment to love and serve
and yes, lead
is our inheritance--
yours and mine,
passed down from mother to daughter,
between sister and sister,
disciple to disciple,
from woman of faith to woman of faith
throughout the ages--
whatever our station,
whatever our circumstance,
whatever our struggles,
whatever our personal response to God’s call.
Martha is honored as the patron saint
of servants, cooks, housewives, butlers,
housemaids, laundry workers,
and that is no surprise.
But if you study medieval paintings of Martha,
paintings from France, and Italy, and Germany
from the 14-16th Centuries,
you will see something else, altogether—
Something that invites us
to continue to turn our vision of Martha
upside down and sideways.
These artists portray Martha as a dragon slayer—
a feminine version of St. George.
After the resurrection,
legend tells us that Martha subdued a wild creature
terrorizing the countryside—
conquering it by a cross, some holy water,
and her own fierce and unflagging courage.
Martha and Mary
Sisters in faith.
Slayer of Dragons.
Choosing the better part.
**See: Choosing the Better part? Women in the Gospel of Luke, Barbara E. Reid A Michael Glazier Book published by The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1996. Chapter Eleven: Pitting Mary Against Martha, pp.144-162.
Susan Fleming McGurgan
Susan Fleming McGurgan
Dr. Susan McGurgan has served in pastoral ministry and lay formation for 30 years as a parish minister, formation director, professor, and administrator. She is currently the Director of Lay Ecclesial Formation and Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology for Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati. She holds a BA Honors History degree from Oklahoma State University, an MA Religion from the Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a D.Min in Preaching from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary (Now Bexley-Seabury). She completed three years of doctoral work in Ancient History/Classics at the University of Cincinnati, and a museum internship at the Cincinnati Art Museum in the department of Ancient and Near Eastern Art.
She is active in the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics, serving previously as Vice-President and President, and the Academy of Homiletics, currently serving on the Executive Committee as Member-at-Large and Co-Convener of the Theology of Preaching Work Group. In the fall of 2020, she was the Marten Visiting Associate Fellow of Preaching at the University of Notre Dame.
Her first homiletics professor taught that every Catholic homily should end in a word of hope. Since that time, the mission of "preaching hope" has driven and inspired her--in preaching, in ministry, and in life. Her current research lies at the rich intersection of memory, gratitude, and hope, and the connection between art and theology.
In 2021, she launched a preaching website offering resources and support for working preachers, Preaching Hope: https://www.preachinghope.org/
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