This is the first of several posts on the story of Martha and Mary. Regular readers here will know my interest in this story, with its exegetical history as a contrast between the contemplative and the activist, prayer and social justice, or loving with the heart as opposed to religion of good works. None of which do justice to the rich texture of this brief, potent biblical scene of loving and serving Jesus.
For some time I've been working on a study of Luke 10.38-42, the passage which tells the story. The contrast between Mary seated at Jesus' feet, listening to his every word, and Martha worked off her feet in the kitchen seems straightforward enough. Jesus confirms the reader's first if rather hasty assumptions and instincts. Mary is the one who gives Jesus his proper place and who has the right demeanour towards him; Martha is so busy doing the hospitality duties that she misses the opportunity to spend time with Jesus. Read the passage, and hear the background clattering of the dishes and the softer murmur of two people talking; and imagine the inner turmoil of Martha and the inner focus of Mary; the anxious worry of the one and the unconcerned calm of the other.
But is that a fair reading of the text, and does it do justice to the emotional and relational undercurrents that swirl beneath this story? Reading a lot of the commentaries of the past 50 years, many writers draw the same contrast between Mary who got it right and Martha who got it wrong. John Nolland is steeped in the study of the Gospels compares “Martha who tells Jesus what he must say, and Mary who listens to what Jesus wishes to say.”
But there is a minority report amongst modern exegetes of this story. One of the questions to be asked is about the tone and motivation of Jesus words to Martha. There is no uncertainty about Martha's tone and words; she is complaining to Jesus about Mary skiving while Martha is doing all the work. But Jesus' words to Martha are worth weighing for their tone and intention. It's easily missed that Jesus words of address use Martha's name twice. This is an idiom of persuasion, an affectionate and defusing of the anxiety and upset Martha is feeling; the double name is a reassurance that Martha is heard, noticed, and understood.
Only after that gentle re-focusing of a flustered friend, does Jesus then speak of Martha's complaint and point to Mary as someone who better understands the priorities of welcoming Jesus. The food and comfort are important, but his words are of first importance. Serving Jesus is indeed the heart of discipleship, but hearing and loving Jesus is what makes that service even possible. All of this, says Jesus, is the better part, the primary thing, the priority. Disciples are called to hear the word and do it, in that order.
While studying the biblical text, I also spent time studying a number of paintings of this biblical scene. Some are unsparing of Martha and take the traditional line of prayerful Mary and practical Martha, with Mary's spirituality preferred to Martha's practicality. But some portrayals offer other persepctives, and they aren't entirely negative about Martha and affirming of Mary. Somewhere in the reading and interpreting of this story some writers and artists have sensed the danger of pushing Mary the contemplative so far that she displaces and devalues Martha's work of hospitality, welcome and care for others. And that contrast, at times becoming a dichotomy, points to the pendulum swings in how some churches emphasise the spiritual prayerful activities of worship and devotion, and others focus on the importance of justice, hospitality, care for the poor and social activism on behalf of the vulnerable. There is a built in either/or in these attitudes that I'm not sure Jesus' words mean, or that Luke's story intended.
Have a look at the Vermeer painting (if you are in Edinburgh you can see the original at the National Galleries). What is Jesus demeanour and body language? What is Jesus' tone, attitude towards Martha? That loaf of bread, central in the painting along with Jesus hand? This doesn't look like someone getting a row for spending time baking when she could have been doing something more worthwhile. The idea that Jesus would be unappreciative of bread goes against the entire Gospel tradition from his refusal to magic bread rather than trust God, to his feeding the multitude, his inclusion of a loaf at the centre of the Lord's prayer, his claim "I am the bread of life", all the way to the night he took bread and broke it in Eucharist. Vermeer has chosen an image that places Martha's work at the centre of the table. And both women are looking at, and paying attention to Jesus. If Martha is in the act of complaining, Jesus' relaxed and laid back body language couldn't be further from the anger and scolding some commentators have heard in Jesus words to her.
Next time, a couple of modern paintings and the perspectives they take in portraying two strong women, each in their own way, welcoming Jesus.