Feminist Issues with the Mary and Martha Story
The story of Mary and Martha (Lk 10.38-42) is ground zero for feminist interpretation of Luke and determines whether one thinks of Luke as an ally or adversary of women.
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
In some creative and critical readings, Martha’s service, her diakonia, is not housework, but cryptically symbolizes a ministry of prayer and word just like that of the apostles (see Acts 1.25; 6.4). Such service that was allegedly performed by women in Luke’s own day is allegedly denigrated by the Lucan Jesus in favour of Mary’s silence and submissiveness. The message to women, on such as reading, is, “Dear Christian women, you are valued for your silence and subjection, not your service.”
Of course, even without a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion, many women find Jesus’s dismissal of Martha’s complaint hard to swallow. Every woman I know have found themselves at one time or another left to do more than their fair share of household chores while everyone else, usually men, put their feet up and complain, “Can you get me some more Doritos?” or “You missed a spot!” in cleaning up a mess. Most women identify with the overwhelmed Martha rather than the super-spiritual Mary. The problem is not the commendation of Mary for listening to Jesus, it is the seeming dismissal of Martha’s complaint about the unfair burden placed upon her to provide for everyone. It is natural to ask: Must Mary’s veneration come at the expense of Martha’s denigration? Thus, the suspicious feminist and the conservative homemaker can be belligerent allies in questioning Luke’s view of women in the home and church.
Those are I think legitimate grievances from readers concerned with the depiction of women and all the more so if this is a veiled reference to women in Luke’s own day. That said, I’m a sympathetic reader of Luke, I doubt whether he is trying to put any woman down, and I think Luke’s intention here is rather benign.