Our Gospel reading for today is a very short passage in Luke about Mary and Martha when Jesus comes to visit their house. As usual, I went and looked to see what Kenneth Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes) had to say about this situation. He is very clear on several accounts.
First, during the time of Jesus, the status of women was not good. A contemporary of Jesus says that to have a daughter is a disgrace, and that a woman is only the source of sin. Furthermore, men are warned not to depend on women for their livelihood.
When we look at how Jesus deals with women, we find something very different. He has both men and women followers. We know this because when his family thinks he has gone crazy and comes to get him and take him home. They send a message in to where he is speaking, and his response is to wave at his followers and say: “Here is my family, here are my brothers and my sisters and my mother.” If he had said, here are my brothers and my cousins and my father, we would have understood that he had male followers, like any normal rabbi. The fact that he said “my sisters and my mother” in his description tells us clearly that he had women followers.
Not only did he have women followers, but they provided for him. Luke also makes that quite clear. We can imagine that it is shocking, in a time when not only did women not travel around without the escort of their menfolk, but that Jesus is allowing them to foot the bill, making him the dependent. It reminds me of the rhetoric that was printed when men first started voluntarily being househusbands. It was, and still is, terribly threatening to many men, this idea of being dependent on a woman’s salary. It would have been quite noteworthy that Jesus, a rabbi, therefore an example of how one should live, would allow this to happen.
Then we have to look at the description of a disciple. In their language, a disciple is “one who sits at the feet” of the rabbi. Here is Mary, and the language is clear. She is a disciple. She is sitting at the feet of the rabbi, with the other disciples.
We know the story. Martha, her sister, is trying to put dinner on the table for this rather large party at her house, and she looks out and there is Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus. She comes and tells Jesus to tell Mary to come help her.
What Bailey says is that this is not what it looks like on the surface. These were not poor women. There would have been servants. Martha did not need Mary in the kitchen. Rather, she was appalled that Mary was sitting with the men, being a disciple. Bailey says that the answer that Jesus gives tells us that this is what is really going on, because Jesus uses the word “portion” and does not use the word “burden.” What is the difference? Martha is distracted, she is not burdened. If Jesus had said she was burdened, that would have meant that Mary should have been helping her, because she had too much to do and too little help. But Jesus does not say she was burdened. He says she was worried and distracted. Why was she distracted? Because Mary was being a disciple. What would the neighbors think! Who will marry her if they know she has joined this band of men? She has chosen the better portion, Jesus said. The word portion could mean either a part of a meal, or it could mean one’s lot in life. She has chosen to be my disciple, Jesus says. That is most important.
I don’t know about you, but when I was growing up, this story of Mary and Martha was told very differently, generally in a way that put both women down. Bailey’s reading of it makes more sense, and is more challenging. For one thing, it does not suggest that women should or should not be in the kitchen, and it is quite clear that women should be disciples. We already knew that men should be disciples, but Bailey insists that Jesus is extremely counter-cultural for his time, opening the door for women in a way that was unheard of.
Of course, it did not take very long for the cultural norms to close that door again. But the early church had women in leadership at all levels. How do we know that? It helps to know the Greek, and to see what happens in translation. We all know how difficult translation can be. This is actually quite simple. The Greek for elder is presbyter. That’s the root of the word Presbyterian. But the Greek language has gender, so that each word is labeled as masculine or feminine. English has almost no gender – although it does have just a little left. For instance, we call the church “she.” But the Indo-European languages have gender, starting back with their Greek and Latin roots. So if we are talking about an elder that is male, the ending is an “o,” and for a female, the ending is an “a.” The plural is “os” and “as” so we have presbyteros and presbyteras. So here is the problem with the translation. When the text was about elders in the church, they translated presbyteros as “elders,” and presbyteras as “old women.” I don’t know how the translation comes through in Japanese, but when you are reading in English, it does not look like there are women leaders in the early church. Not only were there women leaders, there were women celebrating Eucharist. We know this because of the mosaics that were uncovered just a few decades ago.
All right, back to Jesus. When we hear the story of Mary and Martha, the question is always there for us: are we being distracted by the social demands of our day, or are we following Jesus? Are we going to listen to what he has to say, or are we going to do what we are “supposed” to do? This gets tricky, doesn’t it? Where does it stop? One of the questions that always comes up for me in this conversation is “and who is supposed to take care of the children?” When you look really carefully at the idea of “family values” in the words of Jesus, you do not find them!
Perhaps we can learn something from the traditional Indian ideal, which of course, was only set out for men, that there are seasons of a man’s life. As a young man, one is a student, then a family man making money, and then when the children are gone, a renunciate, seeking God. I also wondered about the quality of married relationships in this model, that it seemed acceptable that he would sign over his assets to his oldest son who presumably was now a family man, and then leave his wife to go follow a guru. However, we have to remember that Indian marriages are arranged marriages, even today for the most part, so perhaps that changes the picture? But I have known quite a few American couples who have decided that it was time for them as a couple to follow a spiritual path, some with children grown, and some with children still at home or on the way.
Our former vicar, Richard Helmer, is joining an order and making vows soon. He is not leaving his wife and children, but he is making vows that he will be sitting at the feet of Jesus by doing certain things each day, and this means that he will not be doing some other things. Our Episcopal orders of monks and nuns have this option, to either join the order and live in community, or to join what is called the third order, and live with your family.
But we are all called by Jesus, called to not be distracted. What would it mean in your life, to not be distracted? What would your life look like, if you were focused on the way of Jesus? What might be different? What gets in your way? And the big question: how do we know what is the right thing to be doing at any given time?
If we understand the difference between rules and principles, we will have our answer. Jesus does not give rules, except for the big ones: love your neighbor, and love God. OK, so there are the rules. But he does not give little rules, because the situation demands our response. What is the correct response in one situation may be exactly the wrong response in another. This is why Jesus told his stories as graphically as possible, to teach us the principles that would guide our responses. Now the principles are based on the general guidelines that we find in Amos. Tell the truth, do not cheat, don’t bully the downtrodden, don’t think that God doesn’t notice these things, and above all, don’t pretend that God doesn’t care!
When we look at the Farm Bill that just passed, that took out the entire Food Stamp program, I think that the words of Amos ring clear! We are trampling on the poor, oh, it’s all quite legal, but it is not moral, it is not right, and it is not anywhere sanctioned by Jesus. It makes me want to scream at the legislators: Do you call yourselves Christians? Hear the Word of the Lord! Perhaps it is just as well that I am on this side of the country, so that the best I can do is to support Jim Wallis and those other leaders who are doing just that. But then I have to think, what can I do? Getting angry about the Farm Bill is a distraction for me. What can I do? What can you do? What can we do? At any given time, that is the question. It is time for us to sit down together and talk about this. What is God calling us to, now?