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Not about gender but wholeness

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

Pentecost 6 – 2022 Luke 10:38-42 Marian Free

In the name of God in whom is perfect freedom. Amen.

The work of a translator is not easy. If, for example, a translator came across the word ‘read’ in an English text, they would have to determine from the context whether it was in the past or the present tense. Someone new to English would find it hard to understand why ‘good, better, best’ were not formed in the same way as other comparative adjectives ‘good, gooder, goodest.’

For obvious reasons, Inuit has something like twenty words for ‘snow’. How is it possible to accurately capture the correct nuance of ‘snow’ when translating it into another language?

In the case of modern languages, the work of translation can be assisted by speakers of that language. For example, an Inuit can tell a translator if they have captured the meaning of ‘snow’. The work of translating ancient languages, languages that have not been spoken for thousands of years, is much more difficult and relies to some extent on guess work. Translating biblical texts is even more complex because it is difficult for the translator to approach the text with unbiased eyes. Previous centuries of use and interpretation of the bible mean that it is almost impossible for a translator not to bring preconceptions to the text.

Today’s short story about the dinner at Martha’s home (in which Jesus apparently chides Martha for being busy in the preparation of food and praises Mary for sitting at his feet) is one such example . For much of its history this tale has been interpreted to imply that there is some sort of hierarchy of ministries – that the ministry of serving does not carry the same weight as that of being attentive to the word and that women’s work does not carry the same weight as that of men (Mary has chosen the better part). It didn’t matter what the work was. Being in the kitchen was (in a patriarchal world view) nowhere near as significant as that of being in the board room. (No matter that until the 1950’s in Australia that women were excluded from these supposedly more important forms of service!)

A number of factors come into play when we try to understand what is happening in this account – among these are the translation of the Greek into English, the cultural context of the story and Luke’s purpose in telling it. To begin with the last. Luke, as you may or may not know, is also the author of Book of Acts in which he is concerned with the origins of the church. Niveen Sarras points to Acts 6 as another instance in which there is a discussion about the various roles of ministry in the church. In Acts the gentiles complain that their widows are being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. The apostles decide that they cannot afford to give up their ministry of teaching and ask the gentiles to choose seven men to wait at tables – to serve food, the very thing that Martha is doing . This will free the apostles to teach. Martha’s ministry of service ideally frees Mary to respond to Jesus’ teaching. There is no hierarchy in ministry – service, teaching, prayer are all of equal value and being committed to one ministry does not prevent someone from exercising another. That Luke is using the story of the two women to illustrate ministry in the church is further supported by the strange positioning of Martha’s story – between the parable of the Samaritan and his selfless service and the disciples’ question about prayer.

Hospitality is both a biblical and a cultural imperative. Sarras, a Palestinian Christian, gives us an insight into what this might mean. She writes that in present day Palestine, hospitality is not only a cultural expectation, it is “an invitation to the stranger to be a part of the family circle”. Now, as in the first century, it is a matter of “breaking barriers and providing protection to guests no matter the personal cost.” In such cultures the expectation is that the women in the family will do all of the cooking and the preparation, and it would be unusual for the women to join the male guests until all the preparation is in hand. “Failing to be a good hostess means disrespecting the guest.”

Martha’s concern to look after her guest/s is then perfectly appropriate.

Lastly a look at the Greek is informative. The words used by Jesus to describe Martha’s worry and distraction are violent and destructive – meaning having by the throat and the dragging apart of something that should be whole. Jesus is not criticizing Martha he is seeing Martha. He can see that behind her resentment and anger is a fractured person – “you are anxious and distracted by many things; one is necessary”. Jesus wants Martha to be whole (one) not torn apart (many). Jesus points to Mary, not because sitting at Jesus’ feet is better than preparing food, but because she is not divided, bitter and unhappy. Mary has chosen the good (not the better) portion.

It is important to understand that this story is not gendered. It is not intended to imply that women’s work, represented by Martha, is of little value, and that ‘men’s work represented by Mary is what matters when it comes to discipleship. Nothing could be further from the truth. By inserting this account of the two women, between the story of the Samaritan and the teaching on prayer, Luke appears to be making it clear that women, as well as men have a ministry in the church and that women, no less than men, can be used to illustrate the ideal. Ministry of any kind is only truly effective when it is offered from a place of wholeness and self-assurance, rather than from a position of brokenness and insecurity.

May that which is broken in us be made whole that we might freely and wholeheartedly serve God and serve our neighbour.

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