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

What do the Gospels of Luke and John tell us?
This is the second part of a three part post. Part I is here and Part III is to follow tomorrow. 

I now return to the story of Mary and Martha in the gospel of Luke: what was its purpose for the evangelist and his community? The text itself has been a subject of multiple interpretations. An abstract interpretation sees the sisters as representing two different principles, one as justification by works and one by faith. Augustine (d.430) saw them as symbolising either the labours of this world and the bliss of the world to come. Origen (185-254), famous for his allegorising interpretation of Scripture, understood them as life according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. So, as Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza points out in But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation (1992:58), this typologising contrast was already established by the end of the 2nd century.  In a contemporary context Martha and Mary continue to exemplify the two vocations that the church offers to women, contemplative love of God (Mary), or social activism through service of neighbour (Martha).

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argues that this abstractionist view de-historicizes both the text and the two women, and re-inscribes its androcentric message. She quotes effectively (58-59) a modern popular text, Ben Witherington’s Women in the Ministry of Jesus, who wrote:

Jesus’ remarks, however, are neither an attempt to devalue Martha’s role in hospitality, nor an attempt to attack a woman’s traditional role; rather Jesus defends Mary’s right to learn from Him (sic) and says this is the crucial thing for those who wish to serve Him (sic). Jesus makes clear that for women as well as men one’s primary task is to be a disciple; only in that context can one be a proper hostess. (My italics)

Yet is she also critical of well-intentioned feminist efforts to reclaim the text in terms of preferring Mary’s role of contemplation and study: to reject Martha’s service is to fall into a kind of feminist anti-Judaism that ignores the traditional role in the household of Jewish women.

What the text seems to be pointing to is two competing types of discipleship – that of diakonia, service, and that of listening to the Word. But the problem is that in this contrast, Mary is positive while Martha represents the negative pole. Let us put the meaning of diakonia in its Lukan context, and, more specifically, in the place he gave to women in the context of ministry, rather than restricting it to the life of Jesus. Thus it refers to the duty of women to minister to the needs of itinerant preachers in the fledgling communities. Then, factor in Luke 8.1, which refers to the women who followed Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna and many others who “provided for them out of their means” and there is a case for arguing that Luke is downplaying the role of women disciples according to the patron-client model of the Greco-Roman world – yet removing any element of reciprocity from it (Schűssler-Fiorenza 1992:63-4). The same message is given by Acts 6, 1-6, where again service at table is contrasted with preaching the word for which the apostles must be freed. Compared with this ministry, that of Mary is still restricted to listening to the word and not proclaiming it. Such is the Lukan picture of the discipleship of women in the young missionary church.

Or, is it? Is the Schüssler –Fiorenza critique correct? Here is where the art tradition can help us by attesting to a wider picture. It is possible, as Luise Schottroff argues (Schottroff 1992:114-5) that we should put the passage in the context of the changing meaning of  diακonia in the growing Church, from table service, to eucharistic service, to the wider service of the poor and vulnerable that was a characteristic of  early Christian mission. Nor is she right, argues Schottroff, to accuse Luke of restricting this service to rich women – this was something that happened later.

When we look again at the Johannine text, the plot thickens.  Martha goes out to meet Jesus. As I said above, her confession in the Resurrection is dramatically the high point of the story that in its turn is the necessary prelude to the Resurrection of Lazarus. After her confession, Martha calls Mary, just as Andrew and Philip had called Peter and Nathanael. Schüssler- Fiorenza argues that Martha represents the full Resurrection faith of the community, and Mary its praxis (Schűssler-Fiorenza: 68). I find that some of the Lukan conservatism is reflected in the Johannine commentators. Raymond Brown thinks the Martha story original but that Martha “believes in Jesus but inadequately… she regards Jesus as an intermediary who is heard by God but she does not understand that he is life itself” (Brown 1996:433-4). Again,

Martha’s general understanding of the resurrection on the last day is scarcely adequate in the present situation, for in Johannine eschatology the gift of life that conquers death is a present reality in Jesus Christ (Brown:434).
…Martha’s difficulty is that she does not realise the full force of the “One who is to come into the world” (Brown: 434)

What grudging words! How can she fully understand the uniqueness of Christ’s resurrection before it has happened? No such critique is made of Peter’s Confession of Faith! This reluctance to grant Martha status in the community surrounding Jesus, coupled with the fact that inevitably our attention is directed to the theological meaning of the resurrection of Lazarus, has contributed to the Lukan inheritance dominating the role Martha would play in Christian life.

Stay tuned for Part III of this post to follow tomorrow. 

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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3 replies

  1. Hmm, not having had a Catholic education, I do not immediately jump to the notion of Mary as contemplative. Can we not see her in these texts as a theologian, studying with Jesus, so that she can go out and teach others what he has taught her? This would tie in with what we are now learning about the role of Mary in the early church. Of course, there is still the “problem” (or not if one wishes to grant Jesus a special place in the history of revelation) of the necessity for Mary to learn from Jesus in particular and not to come to her own “conclusions” about the nature of the world, the human place in it, and the inspiration of the divine spirit.


  2. This story always bothered me for the rebuke to Martha who is serving everyone. Nowhere is this acknowledged in the story, which makes women’s service, a role they are culturally mandated to, into a personal flaw and lack of understanding. What if Yeshua had thanked Martha? plus i find the sexual politics of women sitting at his feet problematic. I want to see women understood as spiritual authorities in their own right.



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

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