Thursday 11 June 2015

Thoughts on Luke 10:38-42

A friend recently asked for my thoughts on the Mary and Martha incident in Luke 10:38-42, particularly when it is seen as Jesus validating a life focused on ‘church’ stuff rather than the messy business of the ‘world’, particularly work. I haven’t been able to offer a full and rounded answer, but basically summarise very roughly below what I think are the helpful bits of what I’ve read, interspersed with some of my own reflections.

The reception history of the passage is long and diverse; in certain contexts its portrayal of Mary has been seen as privileging the ‘contemplative’ life over against the more ‘active’ life, but sometimes the contrast is between ‘words’ and ‘actions’, or between ‘justification by works’ over against ‘justification by faith’. So, it’s questionable even that the choice has to be between the ‘sacred’ (church) and the ‘secular’ (work). It could just as easily be a choice between two ways of serving Jesus in churchly matters, in distinctly ‘religious’ activity. All of these contrasts, of course, are being read into the briefest of accounts. In all cases, it seems, the disjunction ends up being too sharp and doesn’t bear the weight put on it. So, even the contemplatives need to grow and nurture and prepare food and eat at some point!

What really is the upshot of the passage: that no one should ever prepare meals, and that we should all just sit around all day and pray and read Scripture all day? That would go against the grain of so many other passages of Scripture that it simply doesn’t make sense.

As a basic principle, it’s worth noting, one should be careful about drawing too many inferences from any one passage, particularly if other passages provide complementary perspectives from other angles. Jesus’ exhortations about hating one’s family, for instance, are a sharp way of saying that, when push comes to shove, allegiance to him takes precedence over even the closest of human bonds – but Jesus doesn’t thereby destroy the institution of family, and is quick to cite the fifth commandment against those who are trying to find ways of wriggling out of their responsibility to care for their parents. Most of us operate with a similar interpretive procedure when it comes to his demands about selling all we have and giving to the poor to become his followers. We’re not really going to get rid of the house, the car, and the laptop, but we’re going to do our level best to make sure that our possessions stack up behind him.

In this particular case, then, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus is discounting the value and significance of showing hospitality (and the attendant work necessary for doing so). Luke contains many stories about meals, and hospitality is noted as a gift and is deeply valued across the board as a Christian practice.

More significantly, the passage may be saying less about work and more about gender. Mary is portrayed as taking the traditional place of a disciple, seating herself at Jesus’ feet to listen and learn. This may not be so revolutionary a notion as is sometimes made out, but – by all accounts – was still unusual. The idea that a woman would learn from a rabbi – indeed, would have been allowed to learn – might well have struck many in the original audience (and in Luke’s audience) as at least surprising, and perhaps even scandalous. So, if there is a subversive note struck in the passage at all, it is here.

This might also tie in with the immediately preceding passage with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Both episodes reinforce, as do other passages in Luke, that Jesus disrupts the social, ethnic and gender boundaries assumed by the culture in which he lived.

In addition, it may not be Martha’s hospitality or preparation (by extension, her work) that is the problem, but her fussing. Commentators I looked at draw attention to the ‘worry’ words used by both Martha to Jesus and by Jesus back to Martha, suggesting that Jesus’ concern is not primarily with the tasks Martha is absorbed in but with her anxiety over them. This fits with the portrayal of the life of discipleship elsewhere in Luke (e.g., 8:14; 12:22-23) and the gospels more generally. Again, the exhortations not to worry about what we will eat and what we will wear don’t remove from us the need to go about making sure those things happen – that we and our families are fed and clothed – just as praying for our daily bread doesn’t take away the responsibility of sowing the seed, gathering the harvest, making the flour, baking the loaf, etc.

So, there may well be a lesson about priorities here, and one which we might need to take on board. It’s not that a contemplative life is better than an active life or that learning is preferable to domesticity. It’s paying attention to Jesus’ words that is of primary significance. In that sense, the passage may function as a warning to disciples who tend to be over-active, perhaps in Christian service or perhaps in other activities. In such cases, even good things can distract us from essential things.

The world usually values Marthas, and Christians often value Marthas, so there may be a challenge that busyness does not necessarily equate to faithfulness. So, there might be something here about getting our busyness into proper perspective. Jesus is arguably addressing Martha’s fear and anxiety in her busyness, not the value of the work per se. Even so, we need to make sure that distractions and busyness doesn’t keep us from the feet of Jesus.

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