You don’t need to be biblically literate to know the gist of the story in Luke 10. Mary and Martha have welcomed Jesus into their home. Martha is about the business of preparing – cooking, cleaning, setting the table – while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him. We often think of this as the story that tells us it is more important to “be still and listen” than to “be busy and get productive”. Lillian Daniel writes: “Every spiritual tradition has some tension between action and meditation.” She acknowledges there is something to be said for listening to know God’s will before presuming to be able to do God’s will. True that.
There is another line of thinking with regard to this story. While Martha’s gripe about her sister needing to help might have some traction, another way to look at this is that Mary has taken for herself the position reserved for men. “Perhaps,” muses Daniel, “Martha was distracted by something bigger and more complicated, something so much a part of life and the air she breathed that she just couldn’t see it. Perhaps Martha was distracted by gender, and gender roles, because they play an important role in this story…”
The Point: Woman don’t sit, study, learn. Women wait on those who do. “Lord,” Martha cries out, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?” It never would have occurred to Martha that perhaps Jesus should have been lending a hand as well … because that’s not what men do.
I saw a cartoon recently of a woman standing at a wishing well. She tossed in a coin and wished: for no housework, no cooking, no cleaning, less work and more money. And suddenly her wish came true. She was turned into a man. We like to think we are making progress. After all, Chelsea Clinton got $600,000 as a “Special Correspondent” for NBC (which really made some guys very angry because, you know, anytime a man is overpaid it’s because he is doing really important stuff – like hitting a ball with a piece of wood, or kicking a ball toward a net, etc.) The fact is, whether or not Chelsea is doing anything important or significant is not the point. The point is: Do we compensate equally between the genders for the same work performed or product produced?
No. But it’s more complicated than that. We are more confused than ever when it comes to “gender roles”. An acquaintance of mine has an adult son who is gay. She remembers when her son was only six years old and he asked his father: Daddy, what’s more important – who you love, or that you love? Whether we are longing for the utopia of Isaiah 11, or some glimpse of the kingdom of heaven as Jesus sees it, we need to listen to the children.
The power point in the story from Luke 10 is when Jesus tells Martha that what Mary has chosen will not be taken away from her. Lillian Daniel pushes this point. “Not by you, Martha, not by you, my male disciples, not by you, this society that says women can do only one kind of work, and not by the religions that tell you only men can be spiritual leaders. It will not be taken away from her.”*
One might wish that the male disciples of Jesus had been around for this episode. No matter. Men have been reading the story for two thousand years now, and have probably been missing the point much the way men – especially the privileged white variety – tend to miss these kinds of points. Whether they were physically present, standing in the hallway, or just completely out to lunch, the men are very much in this story. Mary is right there with them, and that seems to be just fine with Jesus.
*The quotes from Lillian Daniel are from her book: When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough.