Martha and Mary (part one)

And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching.  (Luke 10:39)

This week I continue my series on passages from which I’ve preached recently with the story of Martha and Mary.  These two sisters welcomed Jesus and his disciples into their home as Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem.  You can find this passage in Luke’s gospel, chapter ten, verses thirty-eight through forty-two.

The evangelist tells us “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” [in order to provide dinner for Jesus and his disciples].  However, “Mary… sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.”  What is implied here is that Mary chose to study with Jesus instead of helping her sister with meal preparation.

To our modern ears, it may not sound unusual for someone to want to listen to what Jesus has to say, even if they’re shirking other responsibilities. After all, how often does one get to hear Jesus teach?  But in first century Palestine, Mary was doing something shocking, something that only men were allowed to do – and her sister Martha, was quite upset about it.

In a Jewish household of this era, men and women gathered in separate quarters.  The women did their work, which was childcare and food preparation, apart from the men.  The men did their work, which was to study the Torah, the prophets and the writings apart from women. The sexes were strictly segregated in this regard and the gender roles for men and women were very traditional.  By leaving the area for food preparation and entering the area occupied by the men for study Mary crossed a boundary that no Jewish woman was allowed to cross.

Luke tells us plainly that Mary was sitting “at the feet of Jesus.”  This may sound perfectly normal for someone to do, even a woman living around the time of Jesus.  However, the gospel writer isn’t suggesting Mary was simply listening attentively to what Jesus is saying, even though Mary is often portrayed this way in religious artwork.  Instead, Luke is indicating Mary was Jesus’ disciple.

Only a rabbi-in-training, a disciple, sits at the feet of someone, someone who is his teacher, from whom he is gaining knowledge so that he can eventually become a rabbi or teacher himself.  We find another example of this expression in Luke’s companion piece to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, where Paul describes himself as “at the feet of Gamaliel” his teacher. (Acts 22:3; literal translation from the Greek phrase, προς τους ποδας Γαμαλιηλ)

In Jewish culture, only men studied the Scriptures, only men were disciples and only men became teachers or rabbis.  Yet, here we have an instance, recorded in Scripture, where Jesus not only condones the practice of a woman studying as a disciple, he gives it his blessing and wholehearted endorsement.

“[Mary]”, he says, “has chosen the good portion – and it will not be taken away from her.” (v. 42)  Instead of “portion” a better translation here of the Greek word μεριδα would be assignment or destiny. The word literally means: an assigned part.  Jesus is saying Mary has chosen God’s good (better yet, “distinguished”) assignment for her, which is to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Many modern people (including myself, until recently) completely miss the significance of Mary’s action and Jesus’ blessing of it. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus did not call only men to be his disciples.  He also allowed Mary, Martha’s sister, to sit at his feet as a disciple.*

Next week: Martha and Mary, part 2: Understanding Martha’s dilemma.

*For this post I consulted a paper given by Dr. N. T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham, England, entitled, Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis.  Dr. Wright, a noted evangelical theologian and biblical scholar, was addressing the Symposium, ‘Men, Women and the Church’ at St John’s College, Durham, on September 4, 2004.  Click his photo, below, to read his paper:

About Claudia Dickson Greggs

I am an Anglican priest, author, wife and mother. Writing and teaching about Christian life and faith are passions of mine.
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10 Responses to Martha and Mary (part one)

  1. Rick says:

    Very interesting, Claudia. The part about merida reminds me of when I left the Praise Team some years ago to perform traditional music outside the church. I had for years been involved with Worship and Praise teams, sometimes as worship leader. The prevalent thinking was that leading worship through music was the highest calling a musician could have, and I struggled with the idea of leaving that to perform in secular venues. But as I talked to Fr. John and and others, and as I prayed through this, I came to understand that that prevalent thinking about the highest calling of a musician was wrong. This is not to disparage those who lead worship through music at all. But what I came to realize was that whatever calling God gives you is His highest calling for you. It seems Mary caught on to this – consciously or not – and walked in it. Would that we all could do that – walk in the truth of God rather than the prevalent religious thinking.

    Thanks for this posting.

  2. Mary Schricker says:

    Jesus a feminist?! Absolutely. As a mother and wife, I feel I too have been chosen to be a disciple of Christ. The challenge for me is to hear His call, discern His directions and lead others through my everyday life.


    • Mary, it’s great to hear from you. I, too, think all Christians are called to be disciples of Jesus and that our ministry takes place in whatever setting the Lord places us. He’s calling me right now to pray for the people I encounter while doing my grocery shopping, both customers and employees. Thanks so much for your comment. Claudia

  3. Joy Hunter says:

    Wonderful, Claudia. I have been reading and thinking about this this passage all year (you can ask my family). In fact, I’d named my blog “One Thing is Needed,” because of Jesus’ words, to Martha but I hadn’t seen this – that Mary was crossing a cultural boundary – with Jesus’ blessing and encouragement. I guess I was seeing it through the lens of modern culture where men’s and women’s roles are sometimes indistinguishable. Thanks for sharing this. I’ll check out the NT Wright paper, too. Looking forward to next week’s post!

    • Joy, thanks so much for your comment. I, too, hadn’t realized the cultural ramifications of Mary’s action until I read N.T. Wright’s paper. I stumbled upon it on the internet about a year ago when I was preparing to teach a Bible study. I’d love to hear what you think about it. I look forward to any comments you may have as I continue the series on Mary and Martha — two more posts to go. Claudia

  4. Siri Allison says:

    Verrrry interesting. And cool. I had never realized all that Mary was doing. When we see what a revolutionary Jesus was, it makes me quake at what I might be missing. (Thank God for His mercy!) I am sure that most of the time I am going with the status quo. I had never thought about the Pharisees trying extra hard to get it right THIS time, so they wouldn’t lose Jerusalem AGAIN, as you pointed out in your Good Samaritan post. Trying so hard that they got it wrong. And after reading the NT Wright article, where he gives a culture-crossing explanation of the I Timothy 2 passage about womens’ “place,” I think how many Christians in good faith, trying as hard as they can, like the Pharisees, missed the whole point of that passage (assuming that Wright is right). How humble we need to be — and how open — to be able to hear Jesus outside of our preconceived ideas of getting-it-right. This stuff is humbling — and more than a little scary. Of course, the Lord is merciful, but assuming the truth is important, I wish it was easier to know when we’re missing it!

    • Siri, thanks so much for your very thoughtful comment. I think the problem with “trying hard”, good-intentioned though it may be, at first, is that it eventually turns into pride and works-righteousness. The lawyer was proud in his correctness. So were the Pharisees. And we Christians can certainly be proud in our desire to “get it right” — and as you said, “miss the whole point.” Thank goodness we’re saved by grace, which we certainly need when we’re wrong, but also need just as much when we’re right. I really appreciate what you have to say! Claudia

      • Siri Allison says:

        Yes, you’re right(!),”getting it right” is not the goal! And, thanks for putting it so succinctly: we need His grace just as much when we’re right. Always and everywhere.
        Thanks, Claudia, for sharing this blog with us!

      • You’re so welcome, Siri. Thank you for your comments! Claudia

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