Martha loved all things Martha Stewart. She knew how to decorate, bake just the right cake with all the ornamentation, set out matching napkins – the whole bit. And she could host. She could plan from the simple to the elaborate. She knew what was best, and she knew what people expected of her. She was well trained in the social morays of her day.
In such an environment, her culture defined her. Her identity was drawn from her ability to perform the cultural duties that were laid at her door. Most days she thought nothing of it. That’s just how things were done in the first century.
That said, she did have gifts for style and flair, and she loved to entertain. Hence, when she heard Jesus was in the area, she opened her home to him. However, the behavior of her sister, Mary, was more than she could take. This was not simply a battle over responsibilities, no. Mary was breaking all the social rules of engagement. Mary crossed the cultural boundary into man’s land.
Mary was supposed to be in the back rooms helping with preparations, as expected by all. Instead, Mary was sitting, with the men, in the man’s area of the house, at the feet of Jesus. What did she think she was doing?
Now, there is a lot to draw from the story of Martha and Mary such as one’s devotion to Christ, but, as Tom Wright points out there’s more here than is often discussed. And it’s important for the Church context, as women are, in many denominations, not allowed to teach or preach. Wright notes:
…but far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East and many other parts of the world to this day would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions.
So why would Mary do this,? Wright goes on. Why would she sit at the feet of Jesus? It wasn’t, as is often portrayed, to gaze up at him in adoration. Mary was there to learn from Jesus. She was his student. She “sat at Jesus’ feet.” This is the same language Paul uses when he sat at the feet of his own teacher, Gamaliel. Why did Paul “sit at his feet?” To learn. What was he learning to do while at his teacher’s feet? Paul, like Mary, was learning to preach the word of God.
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson
Here’s the passage from Luke 10:38-42:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Link to Tom Wright Article