Growing Into A Fuller Humanity

(My take on Luke 10:38-42)

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  Luke 10:38-42

This story may be short but it doesn’t lack in depth of meaning.  I am aware of numerous interpretations of this story.  There is one popular classic interpretation that sees Martha and Mary each representing an aspect of Christian spirituality.  In this view, Martha represents compassionate action and service, and Mary represents learning, prayer, contemplation and worship.  I affirm both of these as aspects of Christian spirituality, and from my point of view, both are critical to a vital and healthy spiritual life.  One of my favorite Christian writers is contemporary mystic Richard Rohr.  Rohr founded he Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M.,  the name of which reflects these two aspects of the life of discipleship.   Action and contemplation are heads and tails of the same coin; they energize each other.  The transformation of the human consciousness comes through both contemplation and compassionate action.  When we look at the life and ministry of Jesus we see both.  On the one hand, we see him withdraw from engagement with others as he sought out moments of deep prayer and reflection.  On the other hand, we see him engaging people with total commitment, embracing their real needs, sufferings, pain, pathology and sorrow.  Jesus lived on a continuum between those two aspects of spirituality.

With that said, there is another way to see this story that goes beyond this classic interpretation.  It is to approach this story from the perspective of a 1st century context.  It is also to see it as a reflection of the values of Luke’s faith community.  Only Luke shares this story.  The other gospels do not mention it.  An understanding of the status of women in the first century will also help engage this story.  Jewish women in Jesus’ day were not considered full members of the covenant community. Women were only a part of the covenant community through their husbands or fathers.  For example, women were not allowed to study the Torah. In most rabbinic circles it was strictly forbidden.

The Mishnah (a written interpretation of the Torah) explicitly stated, and I quote “If any man gives his daughter knowledge of the Torah it is as though he taught her lechery.”  Yikes! To teach a woman the Torah would have been to undermine the prevailing religious and social institutions that affirmed male dominance.

So, with just that tidbit of understanding, this story begins to take on radical new dimensions of meaning. Instead of helping with the obligations of household hospitality, which was a women’s expected gender specific role, Mary felt free, in the presence of Jesus, to step out of that role.  Sitting at a teacher’s feet was the accepted posture of discipleship and learning, a posture reserved only for men. Mary assumed the forbidden student role of being taught by a teacher, in this case, Jesus.  In the gospel of Luke Jesus is referred to as “teacher” more than in all the other gospels

Mary was encouraged and affirmed by Jesus when he said, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”  With that we have a culturally and religiously subversive story.

Jesus words to Martha, “…you are worried and distracted my many things,” was not an admonishment of Martha, but criticism of the institutional paradigm that had trapped Martha in the clutches of a rigid gender role from which she could not extricate herself.  Martha complained, “Lord do you not care that my sister left me to do all the work?”   Jesus did care, but he cared that Martha was enslaved in her gender role and was unable to break free from hundreds of years of social and religious traditions and follow her sister’s lead into a role that had been reserved only for men.

Jesus punctuated the whole thing by affirming Mary’s initiative, “(this) will not be taken away from her.”  Wow!  In other words Jesus was saying, Mary, by sitting at the feet of my teaching you have taken the first step toward a greater fulfillment of your humanity and womanhood, stepping past the institutional prohibitions that have reduced your humanity and worth as a human being.

One more thing: Even though Jesus said it would not be taken away from Mary, forces have raged down through the centuries that have tried to do just that! There were a few rabbis in Jesus’ time that allowed women to study the Torah alongside the men.  Those rabbis were a in a huge  minority and were in conflict with the vast majority of Judaism.  A similar conflict existed in the early church and still does in the contemporary church and culture.

If you read the New Testament with discernment, you will see this conflict as plain as the nose on your face, particularly in the epistles.  We can read passages that declare the total worth, dignity and equality of all, crossing racial, ethnic, religious, social and gender divisions; passages like Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.”  Or 1 Corinthians 7 where the relationship between husband and wife is portrayed as a relationship of total equality.  Or in Philemon where Paul returned the slave Onesimus to his master Philemon, not as a slave but as a beloved brother.

But then, we can turn to other passages that reinforce hierarchy and narrow gender and social roles. What it indicates is that in the early faith communities there was a conflict.   The tragic thing is that biblical scholarship reveals that the church reinforced narrower gender and social roles as time passed; and by the third century women were totally excluded from teaching and preaching roles.  In direct contradiction to Jesus’ affirming words to Mary, it finally was “taken away”from Mary, and it took only about 150-200 years from the time of Jesus to do so.

But it was not so in Luke’s late first century faith community.  This story is as much a reflection of Luke’s faith community as anything.  Only Luke tells this story, and this story belongs to the emerging traditions about Jesus that were developing in the decades after he after he was gone.

Luke’s community departed from imposed gender and social roles: Luke’s Jesus, in spades, repeatedly affirmed and empowered those that had been devalued by culture and religion.  There are other stories unique only to Luke that convey this same value.    

It is only in Luke’s gospel that a despised Samaritan is held up as model of compassionate discipleship.

It is only in Luke’s gospel that a teen peasant woman, Mary mother of Jesus, is held up as a role model of trust.

It is only in Luke’s gospel that the prophetess Anna preached about the infant Jesus in the temple.

It is only in Luke’s gospel that Jesus tells parables with women as the central figures.

It is only in Luke’s gospel where women are named in the same list alongside the 12 male disciples.

Luke’s community experienced Jesus as a force of love and justice that set people free from institutional restrictions that held them back from growing into a fuller humanity and a new human consciousness.  

There have been, are, and will be powers at work that would reverse and smother the liberating energy of Jesus.  There are millions of people on this planet who are still marginalized along gender, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, economic  and social lines.

Today, Mary is our role model, especially when any of us wants to hold our ground with Martha and not step across the barriers used by some to suppress and reduce the humanity of others.

Howard Thurman was the grandson of slaves. He was a poet, a pastor, writer and the author of the book Jesus and the Disinherited, a book that Martin Luther King, Jr. took with him each of the 39 times he went to jail that he read for inspiration.  Thurman wrote these remarkable words about Jesus:  “To some Jesus is the grand prototype of the distilled longing of humankind for fulfillment and wholeness… To some Jesus is the eternal Presence hovering over the myriad of the dire needs of humanity…  To others Jesus is more than a Presence; he is God-truth, the Divine moment in history… (and then he says this, and this pertains to my point) “To yet even others, when people look into Jesus’  face and soul, they see etched the glory of their own possibilities.”

I think this is a way to describe Mary’s profound experience of Jesus.  Mary looked into Jesus face and soul and saw etched the glory of her own possibilities.  It gave her the courage to sit at his feet as a disciple in training and emerge into a fuller humanity.

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” 

May we also pursue that “better part”  that sets all people free to realize their fullest humanity!


2 thoughts on “Growing Into A Fuller Humanity

  1. Rod Schofield

    Joe, I so appreciate and value your interpretation of this story. It just makes me miss you in the pulpit even more!

  2. Holly Buskirk

    Joe, I am inspired by and look forward to reading your reflections on Biblical teachings. I am challenged to look at the world I “live in” with a broader perspective which empowers and compels me to be a more compassionate and enlightened human being. Thank you for sharing your heart and mind with us all.


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