Sitting at Jesus’ feet: Model Discipleship in Luke. Lectionary Reflections for Proper 11, Year C.

This week’s lessons are here.

A brief story from the gospel this week but one that has carried a great deal of freight in the History of Christianity. In recent decades, it’s been a particular focus of feminist interpretation and reflection. In the tradition, Martha and Mary have stood as ideal types for the active and contemplative life, or the contrast between social activism and single-minded attention on the love of God. It’s hard for us to read or hear this passage without projecting Mary and Martha on to our own experience, and ask our selves whether we are a “Mary” or a “Martha.” If we’re a “Martha,” should we stop and try to be more like “Mary?”

I’m reading this passage in light of an earlier incident in Luke’s gospel that caught my attention. After Jesus cast the demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, the villagers found him “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” (Lk 8:35)  In this case, the healed man begged Jesus to allow him to go with him, but Jesus told him to go home and tell people what God had done for him.

Like him, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus commends her behavior to Martha, declaring, “she has chosen the better part.” We don’t see either Mary or Martha following Jesus but it’s important that Martha is described performing “diakonia,” service, in our translation that was the “many tasks” that distracted her. In Acts 6, a similar dynamic can be seen. The twelve complain, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). As a result, seven deacons were appointed to distribute food to the poor and widows. Martha is the deacon, Mary the servant of the word; but in our story, Martha has a voice, Mary remains silent (like other women in Luke and Acts), while Martha is silenced by the Lord (as Paul in Acts 8 silenced the slave girl).

Luke wants female disciples to be silent and sit at Jesus’ feet. He even tries to downplay the importance of their diakonia (service) as hosts, founders, maintainers of house churches in Acts. This story may partly be a projection of that reality and the tension that surrounded it from the Early Church back on to Jesus’ own ministry.

In the Gospel of John, Mary and Martha appear as the sisters of Lazarus. They are friends of Jesus. In John, Martha is not silenced. She makes one of the great Christological statements, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Do these different stories offer insight into the way Martha and Mary were understood in the first decades of Christianity? Do they provide evidence of Martha not just as a disciple but as a deacon (a minister of hospitality and the Eucharist) but also as a preacher of the Gospel? And did Luke try to suppress that tradition?

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