Mary and Martha 2.0
I woke myself up last night, talking in my sleep, telling the bible story about Mary and Martha that I’d heard so many times as a girl. But in the dark, in the unguarded place of sleep and dreams, I understood the story in a new way.
The New Testament text seems straightforward: Jesus and his disciples visit two sisters named Mary and Martha, and while Martha is busy “making preparations” for the guests, Mary sits by Jesus’ feet and listens to his teaching. Martha gets irritated, understandably—she’s probably fixing a meal and cleaning. Who knows how many people dropped by to hear the traveling rabbi? Suddenly the house is full, her table doesn’t have enough chairs, she has to feed hungry men who’ve been walking for miles, and her sister has abandoned the kitchen and sneaked into the room where the men are. Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus answers, “Martha, you are worried and upset about so many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Growing up in the evangelical church, I heard this as a story about a woman’s priorities. Women should adore Jesus first and attend to domestic chores after that. Mary had chosen the better thing—being close to Christ—and the implicit message was that having her priorities straight would make her more productive in the other parts of her life, too. But really good stories are always about more than one thing, and in my sleep Mary and Martha slipped loose from their familiar tethers. “Wait a minute. This isn’t just story about adoration, it’s about education . . . ” In my sleep, I understood that Mary had chosen to learn. She put herself next to a teacher. Who cared if only men were allowed? Who cared if everyone thought she belonged in the kitchen? She was choosing an education and Jesus affirmed that she had chosen the better part—the part that would not be taken from her. Because when a woman learns, her learning is hers to keep. She can take that learning wherever she wants, as far as she wants. Her bright curiosity, her unruly imagination, her hunger to know, her capacity to question, to challenge, to grow—it is hers. It doesn’t belong to anyone else.
[I was talking with a friend about the tension between Martha’s choice and Mary’s choice. He said that it was great that Mary wanted to learn, but Martha was right to worry about the chores. “Somebody has to take care of the practical stuff,” he said. “What happens if everyone abandons the kitchen in order to go sit with Jesus or take a class (or however you want to interpret it)?” “I agree,” I told him. “That’s why we should all take turns.”]