Preacher The Revd Neil Summers
What a coincidence that, in a week where women have occupied so many of the headlines, that today’s Gospel has at its heart the story of two women. The account in Luke may be short, but these two important women in Jesus’ life signify much more than a few lines of text. Yes, apparently Jesus’ apostles were all male, a central issue for those traditionalists who continue to maintain the priesthood must therefore remain a male-only preserve. But I never really bought that, in all honesty. Instead, I wonder to what extent the role of women in the life and ministry of Jesus has been underplayed, and, in some cases, perhaps even airbrushed out of the picture altogether by male dominance of what was to be included in the canon of the scriptures (and what was left out), as well as by centuries of male-biased church history and tradition? There is some fairly substantial evidence that women had a much more significant role in the Jesus story and in early church history than tradition gives them credit for. What about those women who stood close to the cross of Jesus when many men had fled? What was the patron of this church, Mary Magdalene, the first to tell of the resurrection, if not an apostle?
However, I digress a little: back to Martha and Mary. There are ways the interaction between these two sisters has been generally understood that don’t seem fully to grasp how scandalous this incident and Jesus’ use of it might have seemed at the time. In Luke’s Gospel, not only was Jesus redrawing the traditional boundaries of who counts as God’s people – who’s in and who’s out, if you like – by extending the Gospel beyond the Jewish people to include the Gentiles. Here he is redrawing boundaries between men and women within Israel – blurring the lines which had been clearly laid down; redefining what it means to belong to God.
The real problem between Martha and Mary wasn’t the workload Martha had in the kitchen. No doubt that was real enough, but it wasn’t the main thing that was upsetting Martha. Nor was it that she was necessarily jealous that her sister got to look adoringly at Jesus, almost in a romantically smitten kind of way, and Martha couldn’t get a look in! No – the real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she were a man. In that culture, as in many parts of the world to this day, houses were divided into male ‘space’ and female ‘space’ – and male and female roles were strictly demarcated. Mary had crossed an invisible but very important boundary within the house – and another equally important boundary within her social world.
You see, the public room was where the men would meet. The kitchen, and other quarters never seen by outsiders, belonged to the women. Only outside, where little children would play, and in the marital bedroom, would male and female mix. This, of course, seems strange to us in the West, but it was the norm in ancient near-Eastern culture. So for a woman to settle down comfortably among men was bordering on the scandalous. Who did Mary think she was? Only a shameless woman would behave in such a way. She should go back to the women’s quarters where she belonged. Now again, we need to understand that this wasn’t principally about who was superior or inferior – though no doubt it was often perceived and expressed like that. It was a matter of what was thought of as the appropriate division between the two halves of humanity.
So in the same way, to sit at the feet of a teacher was a decidedly male role – and sitting at someone’s feet doesn’t mean (as it might sound to us) a devoted, adoring posture, as though the teacher were some sort of celebrity. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you wanted to do if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. Can you see where this is leading? Mary had the audacity quietly to take her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God. And what is outstanding – and in the context probably regarded as completely off the wall – is that Jesus completely affirms Mary’s right to do so.
Now, I’m not suggesting this episode has much to do with women’s movements as we know them in modern Western society. They do have some parallels with the agenda of Jesus to liberate people, but he didn’t base his teaching on some set of egalitarian ideals – the ‘Jesus was an Equal Opportunities’ employer kind of notion. He wasn’t endorsing what we might think was the politically correct agenda. Rather, this is all about the outrageous, overflowing grace and love of God which Jesus personifies, and which turns social, cultural and religious norms on their head.
Mary stands for all those women who, when they hear Jesus speaking the good news about the kingdom, know that God is calling them to listen carefully – so that they can speak of it too. And, by extension – all those whose faces don’t fit – or feel they don’t have the respect or dignity enjoyed by others – or who feel themselves overlooked and unimportant, not least in the institutions of a country or a religious tradition. This is amazingly good news for women, among others, and, in my eyes at least, for men as well. For it indicates that all humanity can be represented in religious leadership.
Like so many other stories in Luke’s Gospel, the tale of Mary and Martha is essentially about the boundary-breaking call of Jesus. This is Jesus not just bending or overstepping boundaries, but breaking them – smashing to smithereens the containers and restrictions we try and place upon God in our attempts to make the divine tame, safe and unthreatening. The Gospel is potent stuff; it may challenge, even shatter our traditions, expectations, perceptions and opinions. After all, it is meant to change lives. And today seems an appropriate day to give thanks to God for those women of faith who have shaped our own spiritual lives, and those who continue to do so.