38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Translation: And it happened, as they were going, he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha gladly received him into the house. And she had a sister named Miriam, who was sitting down beside the feet of the Lord and was listening to his word. And Martha was being distracted concerning much service, and she went and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve? Then speak to her that she might help me." And the Lord answered and said to her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled concerning much, and one thing is a necessity. For Mary picked out the good part which will not be taken away from her."
Background and situation: The mission of the 70/72 begins chapter 10, a major concern of which has to do with hospitality and how one is received, or not. The mission is followed by Jesus' encounter with a lawyer on the question of who is neighbor. Jesus responds with the parable of the good Samaritan who "does mercy" for the man in the ditch.
The lection carries the only reference to Mary and Martha in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). The two sisters and their brother, Lazarus, figure prominently in the fourth gospel, but hardly at all in the synoptics.
Lying behind this question is, of course, the identify of the woman who anointed Jesus prior to his crucifixion (Matthew 26: 6-13, Mark 14: 3-9, John 12: 1-7) or in the house of Simon (Luke 7: 36-50). She is identified by name only once, as Mary of Bethany in John 12. In the seventh century, Pope Gregory said that all these women were actually one individual: Mary Magdalene. If Gregory was right, then Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are same person.
Text: Since 9:51, Jesus has been on his way to Jerusalem. Here, he is continuing his travel, and is accompanied by an entourage--"as they were going." They enter a "certain village." The home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus is identified as Bethany in the fourth gospel. Bethany is 7 miles from Jerusalem. Perhaps Luke did not name the village because he didn't want Jesus to get this close to Jerusalem this quickly. There is more traveling to be done.
Jesus is met by Martha who "gladly received" him. The word is hupodexomai. Previously (9:53, 10:8), the simpler dexomai appears and is normally translated as "welcome." This is hupodexomai, which is welcome on an extra level of magnitude. The word indicates welcome with affection and warmth: "to receive to one's self with evident favour and kindness."
In contrast to his first reception in gentile (8:37) and Samaritan (9:53) regions, which were markedly chilly, Martha gets this one right. The way to receive Jesus is to gladly receive him.
"She had a sister named Miriam (Mary)." (There is a subtle emphasis (tede) on Martha here which would be difficult to translate into English--perhaps instead of "she" one might offer "this Martha.") In any case, her sister, Mary, "was sitting" at the Lord's feet, and "was listening to his word."
The word "Lord" is mentioned three times in four verses. Luke wants us to know that whatever is going to happen here happens in the context of Jesus' lordship. Mary is "sitting at the feet of the Lord," a posture of recognition, adoration, and submission.
That was not the problem. The problem was that she "was listening to his word." (The verbs are in the imperfect, meaning she was continuing to sit and to listen.) In the first century, rabbis did not teach women. Outside of being instructed in their proper gender roles according to custom and law, women received no education.
Martha was "distracted concerning much service"--periespato peri pollen diakonian. Let's reconsider that "they" of verse 38--"as they were going". How many of them were there? Does this still include the 70/72 who went out on mission and returned? If so, then Martha has a legitimate gripe. Even whipping up some "mac and cheese" would be challenge if you have 72 people who suddenly show up for dinner.
Martha goes to the Lord, and accuses him of not caring--"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me alone to serve?" Mr. Compassion himself is not caring? What's more, "serving" (diakonein) is quite often lauded in Luke's gospel (22: 26-27). One could argue that the Jesus movement is about service to others, and that Martha has learned this lesson well.
Thus, Martha is not entirely off-base by suggesting (or whining) that she doesn't have enough help in serving. In fact, she seems to assume that Jesus would agree her. "Then speak to her that she might help me," she says, in the imperative.
Jesus acknowledges her concern--"Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled concerning much." Yet, "only one thing is a necessity." This verse has some textual variants. Some manuscripts have "there is need of few things, or one," which may refer to a simpler meal. Martha should not have tried to put out such a large spread. Stick with mac and cheese!
This interpretation seems quite unlikely, however. The contrast Jesus draws is between "much (service)" and "one thing" which is a "necessity". That "one thing" would be "listening to his word." In "listening to his word," Mary has "picked out the good part." (If that "one thing" referred merely to serving a single dish, then Jesus would be lauding Mary for bailing on Martha.)
Martha makes a legitimate case about needing help. There were, however, a couple of problems. Yes, serving is encouraged and follows naturally from following Jesus. This serving, however, is not drudgery, and is not to be accompanied by anxiety, distraction, worry, and trouble.
Secondly, Martha goes awry in trying to enlist Jesus to get her sister to conform to traditional gender role expectations. In the context of that time--and ours--one might simply have assumed that of course Mary should be helping. Serving meals is womens' work, after all.
Jesus won't go there. In her revolutionary action of ditching her expected gender role of "helping in the kitchen" and instead sitting and listening to Jesus, Mary has shown pluck and courage, and Jesus--the Lord!--backs her up.