This painting by Vermeer is a masterpiece of exegetical imagination. It seems to me impossible to tell where Vermeer's sympathies lie. Traditional interpretations of Christ in the home of Martha and Mary take at face value Jesus' words in praise of Mary and the quite gentle but dismissive words to Martha.
Mary sits attentively at Jesus' feet, listening and learning; Martha is harassed and hassled trying to fulfil the obligations of hospitality and the duties of kindness. The story is often used to illustrate the superiority of the contemplative over the activist, as if devotion to Jesus all comes down to attentive passivity (prayer) rather than distracted activity (service). What is at the centre of Vermeer's painting is a loaf, bread, the substance that nourishes and sustains. And bread isn't made in five minutes - it takes work, energy, time, and the patience to let the yeast work, the oven bake and the loaf to be ready.
Jesus is pointing at Mary and talking to Martha - who looks not a little miffed that her efforts are so quickly and lightly demoted as distraction, compared to her sister's unhelpful passivity. And for me, that loaf is Vermeer's comment. Not Martha or Mary, not contemplative or active, but the one loaf that signifies the heart and energy of Christian devotion - both prayer and service, what Merton would call contemplative action, and what Dag Hammarskjold meant when he said of the modern Christian (as true for postmodern ones!), "The road to holiness lies through the world of action".
This is the only extant biblical picture Vermeer painted - but it has a depth and warmth to it that is lacking in some less accommodating interpretations of Mary's piety and Martha's too easy dismissal. Apart from anything else, Jesus is so relaxed - that hand over the arm of the chair and the other open, palm upwards and pointing to Mary doesn't convey tension and criticism, but a conciliatory persuasion. I doubt Jesus ever dismissed the importance of bread, - sure he refused to magic bread out of stones, but he also enshrined daily bread at the heart of the Lord's Prayer, and the breaking and sharing of bread was to become the way he was remembered, celebrated, and yes, served.
I love this painting, not only for its beauty, but for its exegetical fairness to Martha, its softening of the tradition as to Jesus demeanour and tone to Martha, for that loaf, forever the gift of our Lord to a church often too quick to judge, too ready to criticise, and always tempted to overplay its pieties at the cost of its service to others - that loaf is decisive for Christian devotion and discipleship. Did Vermeer mean all that? Almost certainly not. But that's the joy and fascination of gazing for a while at a picture, and allowing it to question and unsettle unexamined assumptions. Vermeer was no biblical scholar - but sometimes the amateur exegete, using the tools of an altogether different discipline, provides the human texture that prevents the exegetical tradition being monopolised by the professional guild.