What is Your Better Part?

16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

This weekend Christians around the world will hear the story of two sisters—followers of Jesus— who welcomed Jesus into their home. In this story, the behavior of one sister, Martha who was “burdened with much serving” [10:40] is contrasted with the behavior of the other sister, Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet “listening to him speak.”[10:39]

Here’s the translation from the New American Bible (Revised Edition). And here’s how some contemporary readers might hear it:

Jesus was welcomed into the home of a woman named Martha. Her sister Mary sat next Jesus so she could listen to his words. Meanwhile, Martha went into the kitchen to put the final touches on the feast she prepared. Soon, overwhelmed with mixing drinks, serving appetizers, setting a perfect table and making sure everyone was comfortable—all with no help from her sister—Martha went to Jesus and asked him to tell Mary to help her. But instead of the response she expected from Jesus, he reprimanded Martha by saying she was focused on all the wrong things, and that Mary had chosen the better part.

Hmmmph. I can’t like that[1].

In the first place, why is it that when we envision this story unfolding we automatically put Martha in the kitchen? Nowhere in the text is food or drink or any of the other acts of domestic hospitality mentioned. Luke was a clever writer; if food was part of the story, he would have included it.

Second, how is the exaggerated competition between Martha and Mary helpful, knowing that among the Christian faithful there have always been those whose service leans more heavily towards ministerial service, and others more towards prayer and spirituality? Furthermore, wouldn’t we agree that a life well lived involves a delicate balance of both? Is Luke suggesting Jesus thinks one is better than the other?

Are we to infer from Jesus’ words that Mary’s example is superior to Martha’s?

Here’s what Jesus actually says to her: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” [Luke 10:41-42]

The pastoral interpretation, of course, is that Mary represents contemplation and Martha represents action, and that “one who serves actively can only do so after having listened to the word at the feet of Jesus.”[2]  Obviously that is true. There’s nothing wrong with this explanation, plus, it takes some of the sting out of Jesus’ words to Martha. But this understanding is too simple, too literal, and it sidesteps the elephant in the room.

Was Jesus singling out Mary’s “better part” at the expense of Martha’s service?

As a woman in ministry, this question makes me uneasy. Two millennia after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, women of faith continue to struggle to participate in the life of the church beyond Mary’s “better part.” Even while there have been advances in women’s involvement, and Pope Francis continues to call for greater roles for women in the church and he has agreed to create a commission to study the role of the female deaconate in the early church, the partial interpretation of Jesus’ words to Martha for contemporary men and women is concerning.

Of the various methods and approaches to biblical interpretation recommended by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the Historical-Critical method is deemed indispensable. “Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the “word of God in human language,” has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them.” [3]

Each of the books of the New Testament was written with the purpose of presenting the story of Jesus to a specific community during a particular time in world history, in response to their circumstances. Therefore, as part of our interpretive method, it is vital that we attempt to understand the focus and intended message of every author.

Barbara Reid, O.P., esteemed Professor of New Testament Studies, Vice President and Academic Dean of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and author of numerous acclaimed titles[4] and articles on Luke-Acts, and Paul, offers compelling scholarly evidence in her book, “Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke,” that the common interpretation of the Martha and Mary story may not be what Luke intended.

Reid notes that in the original Greek, Luke uses both the noun diakonia, and the verb diakonein in verse 40. Both words “in the Christian communities of Luke’s day, designated a wider variety of ministries.”[5] In our translation, found in the NABRE[6], verse 40 reads “Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” [Luke 10:40; emphasis mine]

St. Luke was a brilliant writer who artfully connected the experience of the early Christian Church, his community, to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Due to his frequent depictions of women interacting with Jesus—far more than any of the other gospel writers—Luke is frequently portrayed as a friend to women, but this theory has been questioned. Stories like Martha and Mary provide valuable insight into feminine presence in the early Christian mission, but are we to infer that by their inclusion Luke’s community supported their involvement in ministerial service?

Since the word diakonia was used throughout the New Testament to mean ministerial service there is no reason to believe that Luke intended it to mean anything else. In other words, Martha was overwhelmed with the amount of ministerial service that needed to be done, and she took it upon herself to do more than she could, perhaps like many of us do today.

So why then does Jesus praise Mary’s part when she is seated silently at his feet? Is Jesus saying that Martha should stop ministerial service? Is Jesus saying that Martha should sit down and be quiet?

Other New Testament texts[7] make it known that divisions over women’s ministerial service (diakonia) were on the rise, therefore the presence of women in the gospels did not necessarily indicate acceptance of their ministerial participation. As Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “The interpretation of what Luke says on any subject must take into account where in his story he says it.”[8]

For example, is it possible that Luke’s intention in positioning the story of Jesus, Martha and Mary after the empowering stories of the mission of the seventy two disciples, the affirmation of the privileges of discipleship, and the story of the Good Samaritan may have been a subtle way to curb women’s participation in ministerial service (diakonia)? It seems possible that this could be what Luke intended.

Still, when I read and reread and then read Jesus’ words again, I don’t hear them supporting Luke’s intention, if we are to believe it was to diminish Martha’s service.

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” [Luke 10:41-42]

Jesus is not suggesting to Martha that she should throw in the towel, sit down and be quiet. If this was the case, what could possibly be life-giving about Jesus words?

What Jesus said was an affirmation of Mary’s part, not a negative judgement against Martha’s. Mary had chosen “the better part” and it would not be taken from her. What Mary was doing was “the better part” for her.

That means there were other “parts,” one of which Martha was involved in (diakonia). Martha’s fault, which Jesus pointed out, was that she was “anxious and worried many things” when there was “need of only one thing.”

Barbara Reid asks her readers to consider, “What would it mean for our day to “choose the better part?” Would it be different for each person and each community and each age? If this last question is answered affirmatively, then we might begin to act out of a vision that allows for the rich diversity of gifts in the community to be used in service without regard to gender distinctions. Both men and women called to contemplative listening and women and men called to all forms of ministry would together hear Jesus’ approval of their having “chosen the better part.”[9]

_______________

[1] “I can’t like that,” the frequent, now classic, words of protest spoken by my eldest daughter as a child.

[2] Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part: Women in the Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1996. 144.

[3] “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993 (as published in Origins, January 6, 1994) http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/PBC_Interp-FullText.htm#Sec4

[4] Barbara E. Reid, O.P. is the author of Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year B (Liturgical Press, 2011; Year C, 2012, Year A, 2013), Taking Up the Cross: New Testament Interpretations Through Latina and Feminist Eyes (Fortress Press, 2007; Spanish translation: Reconsiderar la Cruz, Editorial Verbo Divino, 2009), The Gospel According to Matthew. New Collegeville Bible Commentary Series (Liturgical Press, 2005), Parables for Preachers (3 volumes; Liturgical Press, 1999, 2000, 2001; Spanish translation: Las Parábolas: Predicándolas y Viviéndolas (Ciclo A, B, 2008, 2009), Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke (Liturgical Press, 1996), A Retreat With St. Luke (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000), and many journal articles.  Forthcoming is Wisdom’s Feast: An Introduction to Feminist Interpretation of the Scriptures (Eerdman’s Press, 2016).  She is General Editor for Wisdom Commentary Series, a new 58-volume feminist commentary on the Bible (Liturgical Press).

[5] Barbara E. Reid, Choosing the Better Part: Women in the Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1996. 147.

[6] NABRE, New American Bible (Revised Edition). Released on March 9, 2011, the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE) is the culmination of nearly 20 years of work by a group of nearly 100 scholars and theologians, including bishops, revisers and editors. The NABRE includes a newly revised translation of the entire Old Testament (including the Book of Psalms) along with the 1986 edition of the New Testament.

[7] 1 Cor 14:34-35, 1 Tim 2:12, Titus 2:3-4, for example

[8] Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 1991. p 5

[9] Reid, 162

2 thoughts on “What is Your Better Part?

  1. Very well researched and written. There is much to contemplate here. My view is that Jesus is commenting on the anxiety Martha expresses, not that Martha was fixing the meal. I have seen it in my life where the host/hostess of a get-together frets too much about the menu, whether the house is spotless, and if there is dust on the top of picture frames (etc.) to enjoy any aspect of the evening. The end of the evening comes and they didn’t take any time to actually enjoy the guests, the visit, or relax at all. Perhaps this was Jesus’s message to Martha: “Thank you Martha for being such a great host (it is appreciated), but you have squandered the evening away by fretting over every detail and being more worried about what your guests will think of you as a host than visiting, enjoying the evening with friends – and learning from me. Mary has chosen the better use of her time. That is to be with the group, building friendships and focusing her attention on me.” This is a powerful statement, especially with the countless activities and distractions in life today. The question for us to consider is: where do we focus our attention?

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    • Hi Bob, thank you for your comment. Your thoughts are shared by many people. And of course it goes without saying that in our contemporary life we have many distractions. My point (and I’m adhering to a solid block of biblical scholarship here) is that if we are to actualize the message for today our interpretation can’t stop there; we need to begin with what it meant for Luke’s community. It is about ministerial service. Luke included the story of Martha and Mary after narratives and teachings on 72 disciples sent into ministry, the reiteration of the first commandment to love of God and neighbor, and the story of Good Samaritan. In the original text Luke used the word diaknoia in reference to Martha, and at the time that Luke wrote there was growing unease with women’s diakonia. Knowing this, we see that Luke’s concern may not have been about ways to pray, friendship with Jesus, hospitality or any of the other possible interpretations. I think the approach to this reading has to begin with “what was life giving about this story for Luke’s community and how can it be life-giving for women and men today?” and from the perspective of women disciples, (and believe me, Luke’s inclusion of women was directed to women), what is life-giving about Jesus’ words to Martha? Your thoughts?

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