World Student Christian Federation - Asia-Pacific Region (WSCF-AP)
Contact Us !

Martha & Mary

“Diakonia” Discipleship of Equals A Critical
Feminist Reading of Luke 10:38-42

by Yong Ting Jin, Out-going Coordinator,
Asian Women Resource Center (AWRC)

More than thirty years ago I believed sincerely the “Mary and Martha” story sermonized from the pulpit several times. From my teens through seminary student years and as a pastor [unordained] I heard the same storyline preached by other seminarians and church pastors. They had one common message and interpretation.

Each sermon ended with a spiritual moral lesson that women must note and model themselves after Mary who had chosen the best portion! Shun Martha’s attitude of “complaining/nagging” and getting distracted! Be like Mary who chose to listen to “God’s Word” and not be distracted or grumpy! Mary is the model for she knew how to spend time wisely and devote herself foremost to God as a priority over her domestic chores! And that’s the best choice! The impact of this “spiritual message” has resulted in much damage to the lives of Christian women and men too as they are continuously bombarded with, brainwashed and socialised to accept and internalise this kind of message easily.

The above scenario and outcome seem to be revisited similarly almost every time when this text was read in various women’s programmes, the most recent being the WSCF AP’s WDT workshop in November 2009, Jakarta. The participants were divided into 3 small groups. They were asked to recall the text Lk 10:38-42 without looking into the bible in order to reflect how they heard the text preached or taught to them. Each small group was requested to write down the story/text in sequence as they would remember it. Then two groups read aloud their written story while the third group did a role play. The two groups recorded Martha’s action as “distracted by her serving” and “very busy serving the visitors” while the role play dramatised Martha saying to this effect: “I need to go to the market to buy things for cooking”. As the process continued the participants discovered and realised that the text they described came and stayed in their memory as it was preached or taught. Therefore they remembered what was told about the text as a familiar story than what is in the text. We then read the text again carefully and compared with what were written and role-played. If we do not agree with the interpretation, how then do we re-read this text?

Re-reading Martha and Mary Story:
A Hermeneutics of Suspicion and Evaluation

The text reads a conversation between Martha and Jesus upon the arrival of Jesus. Martha, the house owner and host welcomes Jesus. The immediate dialogue is initiated by Martha! Martha is the subject. She welcomes Jesus to her house. It is said “house” is a technical term related to a house community. Martha’s house is a house church. And Martha is head of this Christian community in her house. Note now the text is a context of an entirely different setting from the context of “kitchen” or domestic household! Martha has a sister called Mary, who is secondary in the text. Yet focus and attention is drawn immediately to Mary describing that she is sitting at the feet of Jesus soon after Jesus enters Martha’s house and is welcomed. Mary is praised and affirmed for her action. By Mary’s role model as “listening”, Martha is judged with negative implication in the “many tasks/things” she is busy with; that she is “distracted” by them. To “sit at the feet” in the Jewish context is engaging in discussion. The listener or disciple is on equal level with the person teaching, arguing and debating. While Mary is depicted as listening quietly, but in reality the text reflects a scenario of the first Christian house community gathered together. Mary is an active disciple, teaching, learning, arguing and engaging in discussion with Jesus. As the active “diakonia” leader, Martha is busy preparing for the function and role of “eucharistic table service, proclamation, and ecclesial leadership” in her house church.

A hermeneutics of suspicion and evaluation of the text raise many questions: why a “division” between Martha and Mary is being created, opposing and playing against each other—the listener is the silenced one while the doer is silenced when she speaks. Also very often our androcentric mind/eyes read v. 40 as an admonition of Jesus to Martha by placing Martha within the kitchen/domestic set up with her action of “serving” or doing “housework”, etc. Many versions use the words “serving”. New King James Version has the heading “Mary and Martha Worship and Serve” and v.40 “But Martha was distracted with much serving” while the New Living Translation records “But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing”. The Gideons International Bible (The Revised Berkeley Version in Modern English) translates “But Martha got worried about much housework” in v.40.

A hermeneutics of suspicion and evaluation of the text raise many questions: why a “division” between Martha and Mary is being created, opposing and playing against each other—the listener is the silenced one while the doer is silenced
A hermeneutics of suspicion and evaluation of the text raise
many questions: why a “division” between Martha and Mary
is being created, opposing and playing against each other—
the listener is the silenced one while the doer is silenced

By using “serving/housework/ cooking/dinner” and describing the “feminised” behaviours of Mary and Martha in relation to Jesus, we maintain this line of traditional-patriarchal bias that divides men and women based on their socio-cultural constructed gender roles. This is itself a patriarchally/kyriarchally socially constructed role that reinscribes a kyriarchal and patriarchal reading of the text again. More than this, “serving/housework/cooking” are devalued compared to being a quiet listener as making the best choice that would not be taken away from her. This is the typical interpretation of Lk 10:38-42. It has been extremely detrimental to the lives of women. Reading the text in such a manner both reflects but also reinforces kyriarchal power relations of domination and subordination based on socialised gender roles. It also reproduces the socially constructed gender identities, roles and responsibilities therein, which becomes the substance of the socio-cultural, political and theological discourse based on sex/gender dualism.

The focus “Martha was distracted” is problematized and trivialised as female and womanly. Hence the word “complain” is “naturally” associated to the rest of the text with cultural discrimination; and that it is also “natural” that Jesus thus “scolded” Martha. It is a dominant male-patriarchal perception and description of socially gendered women who are characterised as being easily “distracted” by many things as well as always “complain/whining”. Martha’s action and words are pitted against Mary’s good behaviour as one who sits quietly, submissively and listens to God’s word.

A Hermeneutics of Reconstruction, Remembering and Proclamation

Many feminist readings attempted to move away from and reconstruct the predominantly androcentric text and interpretation. However many remain trapped by their gender/women’s perspective, which is only a reconfiguration within the kyriarchal-patriarchal hegemonic gender discourse. At best it is a revisionist gender-based hermeneutics or revisionist feminist biblical apologetic. Such readings show that one can be easily trapped in reinscribing the socio-cultural sex and gender system within the kyriarchal patriarchal discourse.

In reconstruction, the text is not about “household/domestic chores” or listening to God’s word as a passive listener or being “distracted by serving/many tasks”. Also these words are merely a reflection of the kyriarchal-patriarchal language and political ideology to confine women to the domestic realm, to keep women within the sex and gender system for control and power over. Thus, the text needs to be freed from such hegemonic interpretations!

Martha and Mary were disciples of the emancipatory basileia movement of which Jesus was also a part. The two sisters hold active leadership positions in the Jesus basileia movement. The text reflects a power struggle and many questions in the first century Christian communities with Martha and Mary cast in the centre of controversy. There is a tension between “teaching” and “diakonia”. As highlighted by Schüssler Fiorenza and Jane Schaberg, this text is a result of the power struggle, which the term integrated “diakonia” was separated into two models of ministry, namely teaching and “diakonia” as narrowly defined into “serving”. Schaberg critiques how the word diakonia has been associated as “distracted with much serving”. Quoting Schüssler Fiorenza that this technical term carries an original meaning in the Christian usage, which depicts diakonia to mean “eucharistic table service, proclamation, and ecclesial leadership”, Schaberg makes a point from Schüssler Fiorenza’s research that the context of the text in Lk 10:38-42 reflects the “debate at the end of the first century C.E. both over the roles of women and over emerging offices in the house-churches, some of which were founded and led by women.” Thus this text raises suspicion on the author Luke who posed the role of diakonia of Martha as different from and even opposed to that of Mary’s “listening to the word” when in fact diakonia carries all three: “eucharistic table service, proclamation, and ecclesial leadership”. It is one integrated role without distinction but Luke had now distinguished the “different” roles between Martha and Mary. Schaberg supports Schüssler Fiorenza’s argument that this condition was prescribed for the church of the time, which did not exist then or earlier. She asserts, “With that split, the diakonia of women is reduced and discredited. Finally, it disappears: Acts does not mention any diakonia of women, but only of men (1:17; 6:1; 11:29; 12:25).”

But the author Luke uses them as two women models by splitting their one integrated ministry of “diakonia”! It is a political separation of two women or sisters fighting against each other. The outcome is that both Martha and Mary and their “diakonia” ministry are put down and devalued because one was distracted and the other listened. Women are put in female-gender role type and gender focus is reinforced. The equal role and apostleship of Martha as in Peter and Paul has disappeared in the text. But in church history and already in the biblical texts and canon, Martha is confined to the “kitchen” or “household”, which has become derogatory, trivial and unimportant. Thus it is crucial to remember women and their active agency in history, their participation and leadership, which existed and formed the Jesus basileia movement and “ekklesia of wo/men” today. It is equally important to lift up the fact that androcentric-oriented history has missed out the perspective of wo/men, made them invisible and muted them to silence and invisibility.

In the Women’s Bible Commentary, Jane Schaberg’s interpretation of “Luke” and the text on Martha and Mary offers a different perspective. Schaberg observes that the two sisters have been made to compete with each other as well as not speaking to each other while Jesus was made to come in between them. Following Martha’s question to Jesus, she was summarily silenced. Schaberg points out that Mary’s study style, which is “totally receptive and passive, not creative learning” is impressed on the readers because she “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (v. 39). Readers are then supposed to follow Mary as the example and not Martha. In Schaberg’s finding, she says that different commentaries have “no agreement about its basic meaning” of this familiar story. Also she says “The textual variant found in some manuscripts at v. 42 (“few things are necessary or only one”) is often understood incorrectly as a comment on the menu for a meal and Martha’s excessive preparations.” Even the brief commentary in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible gives the similar interpretation that “Jesus rebuked Martha’s choice of values; a simple meal (one dish) is sufficient for hospitality. Jesus approved Mary’s preference for listening to his teaching (thereby accepting a woman as a disciple) as contrasted with Martha’s unneeded acts of hospitality (the more usual woman’s role).”

While this devalues the role and “many tasks” that Martha was doing Schaberg is also critical of the view that Jesus defends Mary’s right to study with him because this is not correct, as Jewish women were not denied the right to study Torah during Jesus’ time. It is also not accurate to put Jesus in opposition to Judaism. Both Schüssler Fiorenza and Schaberg believe that Mary’s position at the feet of Jesus is like Paul who sat at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) his teacher. The difference however is that Paul claimed to be an apostle whereas Luke’s narrative is ambiguous about Mary, who was portrayed as a silent listener and has no follow-up action in the rest of the gospel account. It is misleading the readers concluding “What she has heard and learned at the Lord’s feet is private; it does not instruct and shape the whole community.”

Martha’s action and words are pitted against Mary’s good behavior as one who sits quietly, submissively and listens to God’s word.
Martha’s action and words are pitted against
Mary’s good behavior as one who sits quietly,
submissively and listens to God’s word.

Jesus addresses twice to “Martha, Martha”. As in the Bible few other occasions the name of a person is called twice, e.g. Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Peter, Paul, and Martha! Martha is the only woman called twice. This calling twice is a call to ministry or “diakonia”, a special vocation! Martha has a special and prominent vocation in the first century C. E. of the Jesus basileia movement and community church.

In John’s gospel, Martha’s confession of Jesus is likened to Peter’s confession. They are both leaders in John’s gospel. Martha’s confession in John 11 and 12 reveals that Martha was a prominent member of the basileia movement of which Jesus was a member together with Mary. Both of them were “leaders” in their own capacity among the discipleship of equals. In John’s account it is a different scenario to hear of Martha’s deep theological insight about Jesus.

From the Lukan narrative, we do not see this side of Martha or Mary. If Martha was such a distracted person in household chores, the shift from an unthinking domestic help to such deep theological insights about life and Jesus seemed rather implausible. There seems to be a missing link. A critical reading of John’s gospel can be the basis for critiquing and suspecting Luke’s narrative. For Martha to be able to hold her own and engage Jesus in that confession seems too big a leap overnight. Thus simply put, Martha was already a prominent leader in her community in the Jesus basileia movement and hence she was able to engage with Jesus at any point in time and even more so at a situation where death overshadowed life. Thus it is necessary to apply a feminist hermeneutics of suspicion throughout Lk 10:38-42 based on a critical feminist reading of John’s narrative.

Towards Liberation and Transformative Action

Towards the end of the WDT workshop in November 2009, each participant was asked what has been oppressive, negative and inhibiting? What has been liberating, empowering and transforming based on one’s experience of struggle for change, liberation and transformation?

We also discussed: Who was Martha? Who was Mary? What kind of identities and roles were ascribed to them? We discussed about how the text and many traditional as well as women’s interpretations could be drawn into a hegemonic gender discourse and thus reinscribing the social-cultural sex and gender system within the kyriarchal patriarchal discourse.

In conclusion towards a liberational process, a suggestion was made to the participants in small groups to: 1. Write a letter to Martha; or 2. Write a letter to Luke the author; or 3. Write a letter to Jesus. Each letter may be read to the whole group for further reflection and discussion among themselves.