A Disciple’s Priorities

- 7/21/2019


Luke 10:38-42

In this story Jesus stops in at the home of Mary and Martha after passing through Samaria. The usual interpretation of this story pits the two women against each other, usually as a way of focusing on Mary as the more favored and righteous of the two sisters. In contrast, Martha is portrayed as so distracted by fixing dinner and cleaning up afterwards that Jesus must scold her for not putting her domestic duties aside and joining Mary for the study session. The lesson: be like Mary and don’t be like Martha. Take time to listen quietly to Jesus. Don’t be distracted by your housework or anything else.

Yet, there is to the story than this. First, this story represents clear and convincing evidence that women were active as leaders in the early stages of the Jesus movement. In this story we see women who are referred to by their own names (as opposed to being identified by their relationship with a male) and who host Jesus in their home. Notice that in Luke’s version of the story they are not identified as the sisters of Lazarus; rather, “a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home."

In the ancient world this would have been unusual. Only under certain circumstances were women legally allowed to own property, and very few women met the criteria. But here we have a home identified not as belonging to their brother Lazarus, but to Martha, the shunned and scolded sister. So this fact, in and of itself, ought to give us pause to think about what it means. I can’t imagine that the Luke provided this detail unintentionally. What might Luke be telling us about Mary and Martha through his careful wording?

And second, in spite of much of interpretive history, this really is not a text that pits housework against study, or even works righteousness against grace. In fact, there is actually no reference at all to an elaborate meal being prepared or served. Luke chooses a very technical term to describe Martha’s work in verse 40: diakonian. This word is translated as “all the preparations.” But, we are told in v. 40, that Martha was distracted by her many tasks, ‘literally’ by much serving. Again, the Greek word is diakonian, which in Luke is used more in the context of “activity of an in-between kind,” or “spokesperson,” rather than of “waiting tables.” Diakonia in Luke-Acts. . . denotes participation with others in leadership and ministry on behalf of the community. Six of its eight uses in Acts point to leadership in the church and proclamation of the Gospel. Is Martha’s “serving” domestic activity or ministry? It may well be that Martha is distracted by “much ministry.”

So Martha’s many distracting tasks may not have been the dinner table, but rather, the overwhelming work of ministry. The word diakonia is also the root of the word for the ecclesiastical office of “deacon” in the early church. Perhaps the distraction Martha was experiencing was related to her ministerial function rather than her domestic function.

Perhaps there is opportunity here to cast this story in a completely new light.

    What if Martha’s chief complaint isn’t that Mary is failing to help with the housework, but rather that she isn’t keeping up her half of the ministerial duties in the parish they lead together? Is Mary spending too much time “in the office studying” and leaving Martha to do all the pastoral care, administrative work, and worship preparation alone?
    What if, instead of putting these two women in opposition to one another, we focus on the amazing fact that these two women were remembered by Luke’s community as beloved disciples of Jesus and leaders in the Jesus movement.  Had they become, by the time of Luke’s writing around the year 75, deacons who co-led an early Christian community or house church out of their home in Bethany? Are we distracted by the tasks of maintaining our material lives or are we "serving" in ministry in all that we do?

Downloads & Resources