Horizons — Mary and Martha’s encounter

Rosalind Banbury's fourth reflection on the 2023-2024 Presbyterian Women/Horizons Bible Study.

Sacred Encounters: The Power and Presence of Jesus Christ in Luke-Acts
Lesson 4: Luke 10:38-42

Martha and Mary are in a sisterly tiff. While Martha is busy with tasks, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teachings. For the first century, this is revolutionary. There are no women rabbis. Men sit at their teachers’ feet to learn but women are forbidden to do so. Is Jesus training Mary to spread the Gospel? There are certainly women evangelists in the early church.

I wonder how Jesus knows Mary and Martha, who have welcomed him into her home. They are all perfectly at ease around each other, so much so that Martha fusses at Jesus, and says, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” Can you imagine yourself so at home with Jesus?

Every time I have preached on this text, almost everyone identifies with Martha. One person said to me, “I’m with Martha. Mary needs to get to work.” In our “get it done” culture, Mary would seem to be wasting time.

I wonder what tone of voice Jesus uses to respond to Martha’s request for help. He could be saying gently, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part which shall not be taken away from here.” Olive Mahabir suggests that Jesus is inviting Martha to join them. Jesus’ time is short, and the opportunity to learn from Jesus is limited. Jesus may have wanted both Mary and Martha to be disciples who would proclaim the risen Christ.

Women were significant players in the early church. Mary Magdalene was the first person to whom Jesus appeared. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on women and men, and they all speak of the risen Christ. Lydia, a purple cloth merchant in Philippi, welcomes Paul and his companions into her home so that Paul can teach there. At the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 16, Paul sends greetings to his co-workers in Christ, and about a third of the people named are women. Priscilla and her husband, Aquila, were missionaries and teachers before Paul was. Though there were no ordained offices as we know them, Paul describes Phoebe as a deacon. Does this information change how you think of women in the early church?

The tale of Mary and Martha was liberating for me. I felt called to ministry when I was 14 years old, but women were not yet elected as deacons or elders in my home church, and I knew no female pastors. I told no one about my sense of call because ministry seemed impossible.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.), a predecessor of the PC(USA), ordained Dr. Rachel Henderlife as its first female pastor in 1965. In 1974, at what is now Union Presbyterian Seminary, Dr. Isabel (Izzie) Rogers preached — the first woman I saw in a church leadership role. I drank in worship that day.

Jesus pays particular attention to women and those considered contemptible. He is like a river that sweeps away the barriers between people. In the parable just before our story of Martha and Mary, Jesus uses a despised Samaritan as an agent of healing. Women are included in the group that follows Jesus on the road, including the wife of a government official! They provide for Jesus out of their own pockets. Jesus commends the faith of a Roman centurion, who was part of the occupying force in Palestine, and says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”  Jesus has compassion for a widow whose only son has died (the implication is that the widow would be destitute). Jesus defends a woman known as a sinner and who shocks the guests at dinner by washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair and anointing his feet with costly ointment.

What obstacles is Jesus washing away now?

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