“Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.
She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” —Luke 10:38-42
When I was saving money for seminary, I took night shifts at a local diner. I wanted to work in the back of the house. The line cooks and the busboys always seemed to have more fun than waitstaff and the hostesses in the front of the house. Plus, at my local diner there was a clear gender divide. The men worked in the back and the women worked in the front. Despite my pleas, I was assigned to the front of the house.
Perhaps my comfort with, and desire to be in, the back of the house is why I’ve always identified with Martha.
Martha and Mary were playing different roles. Martha invited Jesus to come into their home. Martha clearly wanted to be a good host. She lived in a culture that valued hospitality and she wanted to make sure Jesus was welcome and comfortable. Mary was playing a different role. In fact, Mary was breaking out of her predefined role.
Mary and Martha lived with expectations because of their gender. Women were expected to be great hosts. It was assumed that they would be in “the back of the house” preparing food and beverage for the guest. Students of rabbis were typically men. Men would be at the feet of a teacher, learning as a disciple.
When Martha tells Jesus that he should tell Mary to get back into the kitchen and help, she is telling Jesus that he should conform to cultural expectations. Martha is saying that Jesus should reinforce the cultural expectations by telling Mary to get back into her prescribed role.
“Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
We continue to see ways cultural norms and expectations define and confine us. Gender, age, education, and economic status are ways we categorize. Upon these categories we build assumptions and expectations about what a person can do and how far they can go. Too often our ways of trying to make sense of the world end up being ways we limit others. But in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is very much about setting us free.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news…He has sent me to proclaim freedom for those who are bound and…to set the oppressed free” –Luke 4
“When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” –Luke 13
Salvation is talked about as healing and as freedom.
I think that when Jesus said to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part…” he is not chastising Martha as much as he is encouraging her. He is saying to her, and to us, that we can be freed from the many things in life that distract us. We can be freed from the cultural or familial assumptions and expectations that hold us back. We can be freed from that which diminishes our identity as children of God. Like Mary, we too are free to choose the better part.