The Story of Mary and Martha in this part of the Gospel has most commonly been used to compare models of active and passive spirituality. Both Martha and Mary were used as examples where Martha embodied the active and Mary, the passive.
However, this is not the intention of Saint Luke when he wrote this account in his gospel. The real problem between Martha and Mary was not the workload that Martha had in the kitchen. Martha was not upset because Mary did not help her with the preparation of the meal. The real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she were a man.
In traditional Jewish culture in Jesus’ day, homes were divided into male and female spaces. This corresponded to the male and female roles that were strictly demarcated and adhered to. Mary, in this occasion had crossed an invisible but very important boundary within the social context she was living in.
The public room was where the men would meet; the kitchen and other quarters unseen by outsiders, belonged to the women. Only outside, where the little children would play and in the married bedroom, would male and female mix. Therefore for a woman to settle down comfortably among the men was bordering on the scandalous. Only a shameless woman would have behaved in such a way. Mary should have gone back to the women’s quarters where she belonged. This had nothing to do with a matter of superiority or inferiority but was thought of as the appropriate division between the two halves of humanity.
Secondly, to sit at the feet of a teacher was the domain that belonged to men only. Just like when it was said of St. Paul who sat at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). When they did so, it was a matter of listening and learning, focusing on the teaching of a master.
To sit at the feet of a rabbi meant quite simply, to be their student. The only reason a person did so, was to be a rabbi themselves. The student was learning so that he could teach others also. Mary, in this case, had quietly taken her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the Kingdom of God that Jesus was propagating.
It is at this stage that Jesus affirms Mary’s right to do so. Jesus’ affirmation of Mary’s right was not based on egalitarian ideology but on the overflowing love of God. Mary stands for all women who, when they hear Jesus speaking about the kingdom, know that God is calling them to listen carefully so that they can speak of it too.
Saint Luke has placed this story here to alert us to something special about Jesus’ work. Not only was he redrawing the boundaries of God’s people, but he was sending out a clear message about how the gospel would reach those outside the traditional borders within human societies.
The one thing I can take away from this story is that the gospel and the study of Scripture were never meant for a select few. God wanted all humanity to be aware of who He is and what He offers, whether male or female. In doing so, He is also offering the opportunity for all, irrespective of gender, race or social status to carry the good news to many who are still unaware.
The second thing, I would like to highlight is the wonderful privilege God has given to us who live in countries who has religious freedom and have access to God’s word. There are many who live in restrictive countries that forbid their citizens to have access to the Bible.
May this freedom we enjoy be used to study God’s written revelation to us, in the name of Jesus Christ, Our Saviour and our Redeemer, Amen.