Mary, Martha and the “double-bind”

Yesterday’s gospel reading was the account of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42.

I get the feeling this story is read very differently by men and women. In particular, my impression is that women tend to be rather more keenly aware than men of the double-bind with which this account (or at least, its usual interpretation and application) presents them.

We all know how it goes: Martha is the one following the way of Law, of good works, of resentfully self-righteous effort. Mary is the one following the way of Gospel, of receiving the word of Jesus passively and in faith. Mary has “chosen the better part”, so let’s be more like Mary and less like Martha.

Which is great. Except, looking at our churches, which model are women (in particular) really encouraged to follow? Which of those two sisters is closer to the prevailing ideal of the “good Christian woman”? More to the point, if Christian women decided, wholesale, to follow literally the injunction to emulate Mary rather than Martha, how long would our churches continue to function? Be honest!

Even in the immediate context of the worship service (which Revd Tapani Simojoki’s otherwise excellent sermon yesterday emphasises as the place for us to emulate Mary), it’s all very well saying:

…you can just sit there and do nothing. Nothing at all. Just receive: receive His forgiveness, receive His promises, receive His salvation…

but someone’s got to be making the tea for after the service, and running the creche, and leading the children’s activities in the hall, and chances are that the people doing so are mostly going to be women – while the men “choose the better part” and sit in the sanctuary in perfect imitation of Mary.

Hence the double bind. The church spends most of its time telling women (either explicitly or, more often, by implication) that it needs them to “get busy”. Women who try to restrict their involvement in church activities (perhaps, to choose a random example, because they have only just enough energy to deal with three lively children all week) can be left feeling like second-class citizens who are “letting the side down”.

Then, once every three years, Luke 10:38-42 rolls round again and we get to pull the rug from under the feet of our “Marthas” by telling them that they’ve been doing it all wrong. Oh, but would you mind passing me another of those biscuits? Thanks!

That’s the double-bind: “Be like Martha” – “Don’t be like Martha”.

What I would love would be some pointers to sermons, essays or other interpretations (preferably, but not necessarily, from a Lutheran perspective) that both recognise, and provide an escape from, this double bind.

Over to you!

This entry was posted in Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Mary, Martha and the “double-bind”

  1. Chris Jones says:

    I sometimes wonder if there is less here than meets the eye. I don’t think our Lord is condemning or devaluing Martha’s work; he does not say Mary has chosen the good part (and Martha, implicitly, the evil part), but that Mary has chosen the better part (and Martha, implicitly, the lesser but still good part). Nor does he tell Martha to leave off her housework and come sit at his feet.

    It is not the work (which is good) but the attitude towards it, an attitude that places the work at the center of life and makes it the object of and the source of anxiety. Jesus’ message here is more or less the same as in Mt 6.33: seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

  2. shea says:

    My Lutheran pastor (first time I’ve written that!) preached a good sermon on it yesterday that expressed sympathy for Martha while declaring the gospel of Mary. He even quoted Gerhard Forde. It doesn’t look like it’s posted just yet, but when it is it will be here

  3. While agreeing with what Chris wrote (“It is not the work (which is good) but the attitude towards it”), the practical issues still need to be resolved. If you’ve got children to be cared for or refreshments to be prepared, /someone/ has to do it…

    However, the pulpit may not be the place to address those issues. If you have children that need to be amused/taught during (part of) the service, who says that is exclusively a woman’s role? If your congregation like to enjoy a cup of tea afterwards, who says that only women can prepare it?

    In our not-particularly-large church, we have both men and women who teach in the all 3 Sunday school age groups, men who are on the crèche rota and men who help with making the tea.

  4. John H says:

    Shea: thanks for that. Will check it out once it’s online. How are you finding things at your new church?

    Chris: I agree that Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha. However, I think this account still tends to function in a way that makes many women feel condemned, so effective preaching of the passage needs to actively counter that.

    Martin: quite right that on a practical level there’s a need to ensure jobs are not seen as exclusively as “women’s work”, and even at our church there are one or two men on the coffee rota. I used to help out in the creche occasionally back when I wasn’t playing the organ every week.

    But I think it goes deeper than this. Alastair Roberts made a very helpful point on Twitter earlier when he said:

    How about reading it in parallel with the Good Samaritan themes, as a study of the appropriate character of liturgical activity?

    I think that’s brilliant, especially since it takes seriously the positioning of this story right after the parable of the good Samaritan. It also develops the point being made by Revd Simojoki in the sermon I linked in my post.

    In other words, this story is not reported by Luke in order to teach women how to behave in daily life or in the ongoing life of the church (“are you a dull, industrious Martha or a ‘spiritual’ Mary?” and all that). It has absolutely nothing to say (directly) on that question, but is instead concerned with the nature of Christian worship: is it about human (sacrificial) busyness, or about receiving Jesus’ words?

    It could even be seen as a corrective to a potential error people could make after hearing the story of the good Samaritan (just as each successive parable in Matthew 25 can be seen as correcting a potential misinterpretation of the preceding one): namely, to think “Right, let’s get busy! True Christian worship is about providing practical help for our neighbour!” The story of Mary and Martha then says, “Not so fast: true worship is, first and foremost, stopping what you’re doing – however worthwhile it may be – listening to Jesus.”

  5. 1) If the moral of the story is, “Be like Mary”, then it’s just another form of Law, even though it sounds like pious. The point in the story is not that Mary was x, y or z, but the goodness of the portion she had chosen, namely Jesus. So not: “Be like Mary” but “Choose the good portion (like Mary did)”. Gospel, not Law.

    2) The problem with Martha wasn’t that she was doing stuff, but that she was distracted. As you point out in the comment just above, it’s about priorities and primacy, not about alternatives. Jesus comes into your house (or heart): receive. And having received, then give.

    3) And yes, it would be extraordinary if this passage wasn’t immediately after the Good Samaritan on purpose. Do this and you will live? Good luck. You need to hear and receive, if you are going to be in a position to do anything.

    [I posted a sermon on this text on my blog. If you think it contributes, feel free to add a link.]

  6. Dave K says:

    I tend to think the beauty of Lutheranism is in the continual movement of Law to Gospel in people’s lives. Always moving from death to life to death to life till the Resurrection as we repent and believe each new day.

    Sitting under Jesus’ teaching, the promise of the Kingdom, is life and Gospel. We then go out to work to put to death sin in our lives, and bring order out of chaos. But in our persuit of right obedience to the law (ala 3rd use) finds us experiencing condemnation and weariness (ala 2nd use) because we still carry around the old man in an broken world. So then we come back again to the Gospel and a realisation of the riches we have in Christ, so we can then seek to serve once again.

    Faith should always lead to works, which is what makes faith ‘better’.

    That’s my take anyhow.

  7. Rick Ritchie says:

    My pastor called to talk about this passage before writing his sermon. He said this was tough for him as he identifies more with Martha-like people himself. And he asked me how often I had heard this done in such a way that the pastor still managed to make Martha sound better than Mary. I laughed and said I hadn’t quite heard that done. The closest was three years ago when my pastor confessed that he liked Martha and thought Mary was lazy. But he still managed to follow the text after that. Then I was talking to another friend Sunday afternoon and found out that what my pastor described was exactly what he heard preached at his church. Despite the text, the pastor made Martha sound better because he liked her better. That surprised me. I wonder how common that is.

    I agree with the points Martin made: that this stuff does need doing, but the pulpit should not be the place to address this. (Especially with so-called “application.”)

  8. Michelle says:

    Here is a link to a sermon that I found helpful:
    The basic premise is that Mary and Martha story goes with the lawyer and the good Samaritan stories. The key to the “better part” is Jesus must first serve us (Mary at Jesus feet), this is where we start, then we can fulfill the great commandment completely not just part like the lawyer(love God) and Martha(love neighbor).

  9. Theresa K. says:

    This would be a good question to ask of the director of the Mary Martha Singers at my daughter’s college! I will do it, if I remember.

  10. “In particular, my impression is that women tend to be rather more keenly aware than men of the double-bind with which this account (or at least, its usual interpretation and application) presents them.” I am stunned by the truth in those words.

  11. Dwight Smith says:

    Sometimes problem in exegesis can be resolved if we consider the option that the event presented, like the Mary/Martha story, is a snapshot from a dynamic and evolving larger situation.

    Gandhi proposed that injustice often became apparent when the central Lie behind it was exposed: Indians are inferior to British, etc. When the Lie is exposed, the injustice loses it’s power.

    Our central lie is that catechesis centers around the Church; that perpetual formation is necessary. The message of Christ is intellectually simple, and equally dreadful: You are to love your neighbors, poor first, unto death. His example would tend to indicate that 30 years should be sufficient to complete formation, at which point the work of self-sacrifice begins in earnest.

    If the work of self-sacrifice is reduced to making biscuits for nestlings who long ago should have begun to fly, the Lie takes shape. Even Satan can train men to kill at will in only eight short weeks, less if drugs are involved.

    Why should we allow the Church to blunt the Sword of Christ? The preservation of the Church and the Magisterium is the work of the ordained – those set aside to Martha to the laity. We Mary’s must bear the Cross of Christ to sanctify the World – in both small and large ways. The blueprint is written upon our human hearts, because we know what we ourselves love.

    It is becoming self-effacing that takes 30 years. Only when the self is erased for the other does the Soul take flight.

    I bake biscuits too, but I bake them for the poor.

  12. Chris Jones says:

    Mr Smith,

    I respectfully disagree.

    The message of Christ is not as simple as you present it. To be sure we are to love our neighbours (though even this is not “the first and great commandment”). But the Gospel is this: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures. Any attempt to reduce the message of Christ to simplicity that takes the focus off of Christ crucified and risen is to be avoided.

  13. Dwight Smith says:

    Mr./Ms. Jones,

    You are absolutely correct in your criticism. I should never have lapsed in my “scoping” rules; I should have said “The portion of the message of Christ that might illuminate and undergird an interpretation which would, as requested “both recognize, and provide an escape from, this double bind.

    I now offer a superior such interpretation, courtesy of a discussion held by the women in our community:

    What if the tension between the two women’s roles is based not upon disparity of physical labor, but upon gender expectations. This was engendered at a time when even Christ’s hands were calloused from manual labor, and there was a profound and much discussed disparity between the roles of men and women.

    It is now being interpreted by people who experience far greater gender equality and who perform far less manual labor.

    What if Martha was complaining because Mary was usurping the role of the apostle, an exclusively male provenance, while she was limited to doing women’s work?

    As a Roman Catholic, I can assure you we are still misinterpreting the place of women in ministry, and, while they still do most of the work, they seldom complain about the disparity.

    Perhaps Mary could serve as an example as the Saint of Usurpers of Patriarchal Privilege, herein acclaimed by Christ for taking the better (male) portion.

    Again, it is Christ, and not the Church, which is the Light. My Church would still relegate women to the kitchen, and the biscuits.

  14. Chris Jones says:

    Mr Smith,

    It’s “Mr Jones,” not “Ms Jones”.

    I think reading this story as involving “gender expectations” is an importation of the concerns and values of our modern/post-modern culture into first-century Palestine. I see nothing either in the text itself, nor in the way the Church’s Tradition has treated this passage, to support such an interpretation.

    In any case the call to sit at the feet of the Saviour and learn from Him is not now, was not then, and never could be, gender-specific. We are all called to that.

    I am not a Roman Catholic (like John H our host, I am a traditional Lutheran), but I must say in her defense that a Church which would “relegate women to the kitchen” would never have named SS Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Therese de Lisieux as “Doctors of the Church.” Nor would such a sexist Church venerate SS Mary Magdelene, Helena, and Nina of Georgia as “Equal to the Apostles.” I should not, if I were you, trade your own Church’s rich tradition of the veneration of women for the thin gruel of modern feminism.

  15. Dwight Smith says:

    Perhaps the Irish should dine on St. Patrick and feel well apportioned by the English. Thanks for the birching, Mr. Jones. I shall straightaway abandon Christ’s poor and languish where, at the knee of “the text itself” or in the embrace of the “Church’s Tradition?”

    Is the purpose of Sainthood to suppress legitimate claims to equality, or have you bent it to your corrective purpose? Have you ever loved anyone hurt by the Church? Are they not the 99th sheep? Is the Sabbath not made for man?

    Aren’t you trading a particularly constrictive form of orthodoxy for an indwelling of Christ? Be brave. Leap into the dread. Therein lies Salvation.

  16. Chris Jones says:

    I fear we are trespassing on John’s hospitality in pursuing this disagreement any further. I will only say that I do not find orthodoxy to be at all “constrictive” nor to be in any kind of conflict with action on behalf of the poor or any other works of mercy.

    I admire your devotion to, and action in, the cause of the poor, and my own neglect of that duty disqualifies me from presuming to be your teacher. Forgive me.

  17. misterjamesnicholas says:

    Here’s the sermon I gave:

    Basically, I read the story through the lens that both Mary and Martha desire the regard of Christ but Martha, in contrast to Mary, believes that regard cannot be shared and therefore sets upon diminishing Mary in the eyes of Jesus. It’s sort of a Girardian account of their rivalry. Mary, in choosing the better part, gives no indication of being threatened by the worthy tasks Martha is carrying out and, thus, perhaps feels there is enough love to go around.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s