Rescuing Martha from the Dishes: A Challenge of Retrieval and Proclamation by Mary Grey – Part I

Introduction and Martha – Patron Saint of Housewives

Here I explore a troubling issue for feminist biblical interpretation, namely the interpretations of Luke 10, 38-42, with specific reference to the figure of Martha, and the questions that arise when we compare John’s story, the Raising of Lazarus (John 11.1-44).  At first sight Luke seems clear: Martha is troubled with the domestic task of preparing food, while Mary has gone to the heart of the matter, listening to the word of God at the feet of the Lord. Mary is always depicted at the feet of the Christ, while Martha is the active one and this is often interpreted negatively. (One interesting exception is Giotto’s fresco of the raising of Lazarus, where both sisters are prostrate at Jesus’ feet). A clear message seems given for Christian discipleship and this text has had an evocative power through history. But on reading John’s story, are the roles reversed? Martha runs to greet Jesus, Mary remains at home. From Martha comes the confession of faith in Jesus:

Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world. (John 11.27)

What we are given is a full confession of faith on Jesus as Son of God, the confession which is on the lips of Peter in the 3 Synoptic Gospels, (Luke 9.20, Mark 8.29, Matthew 16.15-17).

Why is it, then, that Christian Tradition has largely ignored the Johannine text and followed Luke, even a negative interpretation of Luke? I am assuming that John knew Luke’s text, both because exegetes think John knew proto-Luke, and also because of the textual evidence here:

It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. (John 11.2)

Yet this is said before the anointing story of chapter 12.[1]

I will first give a brief picture of how Martha’s reputation developed in Christianity, then return to the texts asking what are the issues for Luke and for the Church and if we can discern a wider picture both in text and in tradition.

Martha – patron saint of cooks and housewives

In my Roman Catholic childhood we were given a double message. Mary was praised as the contemplative, who listened to the Word of God and chose the better part, but nothing inspirational was said about Martha. No hymns, no prayers  – not even popular ones- were devoted to her and she became the patron saint of cooks and housewives, with organisations for domestics in country houses being called after her. And yet we could not do without her, never quite escape her, schooled as we were that the domestic role was our “lot.” Practical Martha, dedicated to service, could have been a spur and inspiration to activist Christianity – but this activism was severely limited to the domestic sphere. A double standard was forced upon us – Mary’s role extolled, yet perfectionist standards with the housework must also be achieved.

But the Reformers, who replaced the medieval type of female ascetic perfection as a nun  with the domestic role in the home, had another problem with Martha. For them she became the embodiment of “righteousness by works.” If we combine this with the role prescribed to women of kinder, kuche, kirche, we can see how women could feel devalued in their domestic role. Elisabeth Moltmann in The Women around Jesus, (1980:15-48)  points to a turn-around in the 19th century, when women deaconesses and social workers needed a role model, and the listening role of Mary seemed inadequate. She cites a pioneer of women’s’ emancipation, Louise Otto- Peters, who wanted to be a disciple like both Martha and Mary and a popular hymn picked up this theme:

Martha and Mary in one life
Make up the perfect vicar’s wife (Moltmann: 21)

Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)  Christ in the House of Martha and Mary , c.1628

Jan Brueghel the Younger and Peter Paul Rubens, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary , c.1628, National Gallery of Ireland

Thus the predominant artistic depictions of the two sisters highlight Martha in her serving role. Here, a complication arose in that there was a conflation between Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala and the three anointing stories. So, much artistic imagination focused on Mary of Magdala/Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with her hair – with a consequent double effect on Martha, not only subordinating her to Mary, but giving her no role but that of observer or bystander. The frequent depictions of Christ with Martha and Mary in Bethany in the 16th and 17th centuries could be as much to do with opportunities for still life as with the scriptural meaning of the story. Or a combination of landscape, rural and peasant life were highlighted. A picture from the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Christ in the house of Martha and Mary (1628) is by both Rubens and Jan Peeter Brueghel. Looking at the picture, the realism is inescapable– the landscape, with chickens, deer and other animals; the fruit-laden table and preparations for the meal going on in the background. Yet the picture is faithful to the Lukan text: Martha addresses Jesus who replies to her and points to Mary. The dog stands by Martha, a symbol of the readiness of faith, and vigilance.  Another image – one of the loveliest pictures of the scene – is that of Jan Vermeer, (1655, Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Scotland).[2]

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary c. 1654-1655 National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Christ in the House of Martha and Mary c. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Martha’s troubled interrogation, Mary’s rapt attention, and Jesus’ gesture transmit the traditional interpretation of the text, although the intimacy of the three is still a prominent theme. Of these two pictures, the Rubens/Breughel gives Martha a more positive role. She is standing, a figure of some authority, while Mary – always at Christ’s feet- is lower, as a sign of humble attention.

[1] Of course it is possible that these chapters have been transposed and John is referring to the Mary of his own story.

[2] For both these pictures, and for an explanation of the iconography, see Steffano Zuffi, Gospel Figures in Art: 192-194.

This is the first part of a three part post. Part II and III to follow tomorrow and the next day. 

Mary Grey, Ph.D. is the Professor of Feminist Theology at St. Mary’s University College, in Twickenham, London, and author of thirteen books including A Cry for Dignity: Religion, Violence, and the Struggle of the Dalit Women in India.

Categories: Art, Bible, Christianity, Feminist Theology, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Scripture, Textual Interpretation

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6 replies

  1. I love the way you interweave biblical interpretation with art history and folk legends in your analysis. Very lovely!

    The word “proclamation” sticks in my craw. I could accept “interpreting these stories” as “our stories” in a Christian context. But what does “proclamation” mean or imply? That there is some meaning in these stories that either a Christian or someone else “needs” to hear? Why? Because the message cannot be found elsewhere? As someone who was raised Christian, I understand that these stories may have meaning for Christians. In fact as a Californian Protestant, I cannot remember ever hearing anything said by ministers or Sunday School teachers about either Mary or Martha, so I do not require a reinterpretation, as you obviously do in the context you mention. For me now, new interpretations of these stories certainly don’t need to be “proclaimed” as I no longer believe that the biblical stories are central in my understanding of the world. So why the term proclamation? There isn’t anything in those stories that I “must” or “need” to hear, so I hope you aren’t advocating “proclaiming” them to the world or to the heathens. Theological habits of speech die hard, I fear.

    xxx Mary, Carol


  2. Great post. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and historical context. Great to have images as well. Here’s a fictional take on the subject posted here in July:


  3. Very interesting. I’ve always thought there was more to Martha than the male writers tell us.


  4. Thank you for the depth of reflection and research you’ve put into this fine post and the important questions it evokes. The examples from art history are marvelous and helpful. The Vermeer has always been an enigma to me, with Martha looking younger and oddly boyish (with those strong arms and wearing a vest) and Mary seeming the older, more thoughtful as a result of more life experience perhaps. I notice the Wikipedia page links to a huge reproduction:

    If we want our scriptures to speak to us in our time and reach people in various other faith traditions, we might need to interpret the parables or koans in an updated manner. From that perspective, Mary and Martha seem to me representative of many different walks of life, not specifically two different types of women, nor even confined to a woman’s sphere. I think of Martha as the laity, the common person, the worker, both blue collar and white collar, the secretary, the nurse, the lawyer or the bus driver, gender inclusive. Mary is the recluse, the monastic, the mystic, the philosopher, the feminist, the poet, the artist, or the non-conformer. Jesus is an amazingly profound and sensitive life coach, someone we turn to for help in working out our path, and who can literally rescue us from messing up a whole lot of things, because we are helped to listen to our inner voice, to be faithful to who we are, and to live in the present more compassionately and more intuitively.



  1. Rescuing Martha from the Dishes: A Challenge of Retrieval and Proclamation by Mary Grey – Part II | Feminism and Religion
  2. Rescuing Martha from the Dishes: A Challenge of Retrieval and Proclamation by Mary Grey – Part III | Feminism and Religion

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