Martha always gets a bad rap. In traditional interpretations of her story, she is said to be too preoccupied or anxious about the details of hospitality to attend well to her guest. Her sister, by contrast, sits in rapt attention at Jesus’ feet, drinking in his every word. When Jesus declares that it is Mary who has “chosen the better part,” the message we are supposed to take away, according to many commentators, is that contemplation, rather than active service is the harder but better choice, and that no one can minister without first sitting and learning at Jesus’ feet. While finding the right balance between contemplation and action is a perennial challenge for most Christians, that may not actually be the question that today’s Gospel addresses. There are many tensions in the story left unanswered by the traditional interpretation.
Recently New Testament scholars have proposed that this Gospel incident may be more a reflection of the situation of the Lucan communities and the questions they were trying to resolve, rather than a report of an episode in the life of Jesus. They have noticed that what concerns Martha is much diakonia, and her distress is over her sister leaving her to carry it out alone. Both the noun diakonia and the verb diakonein occur in verse 40.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, these terms refer primarily to ministerial service, as in Jesus’ declaration of his mission “to serve,” not to “be served” (Mk 10:45; Lk 22:27). In New Testament times, diakonia covered a wide range of ministries. In the case of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and the other Galilean women who “provided for” Jesus and the itinerant preachers “out of their resources,” diakonein refers to financial ministry (the Greek word hyparchonton connotes monetary resources, Lk 8:3). This is the same nuance diakonia has in Acts 11:29 and 12:25 regarding Paul’s collection for Jerusalem. In Acts 6:2 diakonein refers to table ministry, while in Acts 6:4 diakonia connotes ministry of the word. In Acts 1:25 diakonia is apostolic ministry. One individual in the New Testament is named a diakonos, Phoebe, “deacon of the church at Cenchreae” (Rom 16:1).
Scholars are now thinking that the incident in today’s Gospel is not about preparing a meal; instead, Martha voices how burdened her heart is over the conflicts surrounding women’s exercise of their ministries in the early church. Some people were greatly in favor of women evangelizers and teachers like Prisca (Acts 18:26), Euodia and Syntyche (Phil 4:3), women prophets like Philip’s four daughters (Acts 21:9), and women heads of house churches, like Nympha (Col 4:15), Mary (Acts 12:12), Lydia (Acts 16:40), and Prisca (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 16:19). Others, however, argued that a woman’s place was in the home and that speaking and ministering in the public sphere belonged to the men (e.g., 1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tm 2:11-12). Luke takes the latter position, giving it validity by placing approval of the silent Mary on Jesus’ lips.
There was never any question in the early church about women becoming disciples. Both Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus and the word he spoke (vss. 38-39). The controversy swirled around what women would do with what they learned while sitting at Jesus’ feet. The answer Luke gave was quite understandable for his time. Today’s Gospel invites us to reflect on what answer Jesus might give today to the question of woman’s place in the ministries of the church as they have now evolved.