As It Happens I Owe Mary And Martha An Apology

Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”

And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”

—Luke 10:38-42

If you’ve spent even a modest amount of time at church (particularly that murky, amorphous body known as Women’s Ministries), you’ve likely encountered the same handful of responses on the Mary and Martha story (as always, your Women’s Ministry experience may vary):

  1. We ought to all be a bit more like Mary and a bit less like Martha

  2. Not that we ought to be wholly unlike Martha! Thank you for all that you do around the church!

  3. We ought to be more like Mary, probably, but she seems a bit snide and pleased with herself, doesn’t she? Getting away with something.

  4. I’ve started a feminist hermeneutics blog called Saving Martha From The Dishes, please consider becoming a monthly supporter. Do not tell anyone else in Women’s Ministries about this blog, because I know I’ll get hauled up to discuss my “backbiting” the second the senior staff finds out about it

  5. I’m starting a crowdfund to buy Martha a dishwasher

  6. I’ve built a time machine to go back to first-century Palestine in order to help Martha with the dishes myself. I’m bringing a Brillo pad, my grimmest forearms, and solidarity. And I’m going to glare at Our Lord until he admits his error.

  7. Not that Our Lord is wrong, exactly, bless that sweet gentle man Jesus. But he is a man, isn’t he, and sometimes the sweet men are the most misguided about dishes; it’s all well and good to sit at his feet but sooner or later those dishes are going to have to get washed

  8. Isn’t that typical of Our Dear Sweet Aggravating Absent-Minded Husband Jesus, offering to perform miracles when the party runs out of wine, but conveniently miracle-less when someone needs help with the washing-up.

  9. I’m going back in time and I’m bringing my own dishes for Jesus to wash, because we can all stand to improve, even our DH Jesus

  10. Does this story have to be a referendum on women and housework at all? Can’t we just read this as another dispute about attention and need between Jesus and his disciples without declaring that there are only two sorts of women in the world, both of whom are sort-of wrong about the dishes?

  11. Lest we forget first-century context, this story is all about subverting expectations and upending gender roles, this is good news for Martha as well as Mary and —

  12. Are we even sure they were in Mary and Martha’s house? Does the original text say anything about being a hostess? “Sitting at the feet of a teacher” is an attitude of discipleship, not necessary a physical posture; mightn’t they be arguing about different models of ministry and we’re the sexist assholes for assuming dishes factored into the thing at all?

  13. Please, I can’t handle another women’s retreat about Mary and Martha. If I hear another word about Mary and Martha I am going to scream until my tongue dries out and becomes a consuming fire. What do you think Tabitha of Joppa was like? I bet she was tall.

Luke 10 might describe one of the most immediately familiar scenarios in the Gospels, at least to me; I cannot often imagine myself on the Temple Mount but almost every day of my life I have either done my own dishes, watched someone else do my dishes, inconspicuously done someone else’s dishes, pointedly avoiding doing someone else’s dishes, conspicuously done someone else’s dishes, etc, so it’s difficult not to bring a lifetime of experience and resentments to the story, which is a slightly unfair burden to both Mary and Martha. (There’s a possible reading of transmisogyny in this story; watch this space for further thoughts on that one.) I don’t know that I have much to add to the centuries of Mary-and-Martha reactions, aside from a sense that both of them have subsequently been buried under more dishwashing opinions than they ever were with dishes, and I hope one of these days they’re able to fight their way out.