I left off my analysis of Luke’s reversal theme at the end of Luke 7 with the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. So I will continue this analysis now with Luke 8 through Luke 10, the chapter involving our passage of Martha and Mary. As I stated last time, I am assessing Luke’s reversal theme throughout the Gospel so I can put the story of Martha and Mary into proper perspective.
At the start of chapter 8, Luke records the names of women who are following Jesus (in addition to the Twelve Jesus handpicked to follow Him).
Another piece of evidence for Luke’s reversal theme can be found in verses 19-21. Here Luke reverses the meaning of family:
“Then his [Jesus] mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’”
Here Jesus is told that His family is outside waiting to see Him, and He responds with a reversal in the public’s idea of family: family does not consist necessarily of blood relatives, but those who do the will of His Father. This surely would have been a “slap in the face” to Jesus’ own earthly family. Even today, Jesus’ comment would have been considered disrespectful. Families today, as I imagine they did in the lifetime of Christ, were very tight-knit and prided themselves on being so. Families today do the same.
When I was a child, my mother and family always told my twin sister and I to stick together at school. We were never to laugh at each other in someone else’s face; instead, when one of us was laughed at, the other was to come to our aid. We were never to fight each other in public, or call each other names, or make the other cry. And no matter how much we disagreed with the other, in public, we were “on the same team.” That is the way it was throughout my entire childhood. And the reason? As my grandmother always said, “Blood is thicker than water.” No matter how close a non-relative could be, a relative could (and in most cases, would) always be closer.
But for my family, as for many families, as for the hearers of Jesus day, His response would have come as a sheer shock to those around Him—for He was redefining what a “family” is. In Jesus’ day (as well as my own), “blood was thicker than water”—but Jesus was actually asserting that there was something THICKER than family, the family unit. Jesus actually dared to assert the notion that there was a stronger unit than the human family—the family of God!
In chapter 9, we see another social reversal involving children:
“An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, ‘Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great” (9:46-48).
Notice that the disciples are getting into a heated debate about who is the greatest amongst themselves. There is no child involved, just the Twelve disciples. But how does Jesus respond? He takes a child, sits the child in front of them, and claims that the child is an example of greatness (the least of those involved).
When we arrive at chapter 10, we see that Jesus sends 72 followers of His (minus the Twelve) to go and proclaim the kingdom among the house of Israel. In verse 17, the 72 returned to Jesus, exclaiming, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Of all the work that excited them most, it was seeing the demons tremble and shudder at the name of Jesus. They were ecstatic about what they could do to the demons. But Jesus “nudged” them back to reality with the words, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20, ESV). While the power was a good thing (it was destroying Satan’s kingdom), what was more important is that they have a heavenly citizenship and eternal life awaiting them. To be able to cast out demons in Christ’s Name (Matthew 7:22), but bear no fruit of repentance, would profit nothing.
In verse 21, Christ praises the Father: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the WISE and UNDERSTANDING and revealed them to LITTLE CHILDREN; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” In verse 23, Jesus tells the disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you are, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” The Father Himself has done a reversal of knowledge, as those considered to be “little children,” or infants, are “in the know” of God’s plan, while those who are “in the know” in society are ignorant of God’s workings. The reference to “prophets and kings” in verse 24 represents the power group of society, those in leadership, those who served in positions of prominence. Yet, God chose to give healing authority to these lowly 72 disciples, everyday people who chose to follow Christ. Christ truly gave power to the POWERLESS!!
In verses 25-37, Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan to show a lawyer who his neighbor was (per the lawyer’s request). Notice that the story involves Jewish ruling authority—the priest and a Levite. Priests and Levites served in the tabernacle and were considered to be the religious rulers among God’s people. However, in Jesus’ story, neither of these religious rulers stopped to help the man who had been beaten by robbers. These religious rulers seemed quite unconcerned about the man’s condition (and these were rulers who should have been showing love to the man, who was in need—they were supposed to be representing a God of love and mercy who helps those in need!). Who helps the hurt man? A Samaritan, a representative of an outcast group in Jesus’ day. Samaritans were half-Jewish and half-Gentile, and were considered to be unworthy of association (were known as half-breeds). Samaria was the home of the Samaritans, and no Jew ever visited Samaria. Jesus’ visit there in John 4 and His subsequent discussion with the Samaritan woman stunned His disciples. Jesus makes the Samaritan the example to follow, something that would have been an affront to a Pharisee. Once again, Jesus reverses social expectations—the priest, Levite, or even the Pharisee would have been the Jewish religious example to look to, but, instead, a Samaritan, a disliked opponent of the Jews, was made the godly example.
And this brings us up to the famous passage in question: Luke 10:38-42. In this passage, we have Martha, busy at work trying to be a good hostess, while Mary, Martha’s sister, is sitting at Christ’s feet, listening to Him. Martha tells Jesus to reinforce her command and tell Mary to help her; but Jesus does the reverse—He tells Martha that instead of Mary following her, she should be following Mary—listening to His teaching.
This passage is important when we consider that Luke’s Gospel is a social commentary on the social conditions of his day. Here, he is pairing up two things—the domestic service with the discipleship service. Martha chooses the domestic, the housework, and scolds Mary for not doing the same; but Jesus vindicates Mary and says that she chose “the good portion,” the one NECESSARY thing! Martha was doing a good thing by serving, but it wasn’t NECESSARY or needed.
Jesus overturns a social convention here, the idea that women were meant to be only in the kitchen serving food and being good hostesses. There was a set importance to being a good hostess, but there were other things that were more important, like listening to the teaching of Christ (being a disciple).
Let’s read Aida Spencer’s answer (as Wayne Grudem records it) in Grudem’s book, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, page 162:
“Jesus has completely reversed the priorities and the consequences of those priorities in Jewish life. Not only does Jesus not think women are exempt from learning the Torah, but also they do BEST to learn God’s law…in choosing between a woman’s role in homemaking and a woman’s role in education, which Mary and Martha represent…Jesus has concluded that a woman’s role as homemaker is NOT primary...”
I agree with Aida Spencer’s words here. Martha was distracted with being a good hostess, which was the social expectation; but Jesus was concerned with Martha being a good disciple, which, in the eyes of the Savior, was the best state to aspire to. Notice that Jesus calls Mary’s “pupil stance” as the only “necessary” thing. Being a good hostess is optional—but being a good disciple is MANDATORY. Christ demands that we be excellent disciples of His, but whether or not our homes stay entirely immaculate most of the time is another thing entirely (not something in and of itself that plays a great role in our spiritual lives). According to Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, “The picture of a woman in the disciple’s position, at the feet of Jesus, would be STARTLING in a culture where women did not receive formal teaching from a rabbi” (1037, caps mine). Women weren’t taught from the rabbis, didn’t receive instruction in the Torah, because they were told they wouldn’t need it. They weren’t to teach, to instruct anyone in anything, so what did they need to learn the law for? Learning, in and of itself, was pointless…UNLESS you were going to teach. So women, never being able to teach, would have no need to learn. But here, in Luke 10, we see Jesus commending Mary for her desire to learn more of God’s law, and His instructing Martha to follow Mary’s example. Surely, then, there was some importance to learning—but, at the heart of Luke’s Gospel, there was some importance to WOMEN learning.
Let me say two things to conclude the discussion on Mary and Martha, at least for the immediate future. First, there is the idea that Jesus encouraged these women to learn. It is very likely that Martha and Mary were both single women (we have no proof that they were married). So, in their day, whether a woman was married or not, her ASSIGNED role from birth was to be a homemaker. With Jesus’ encouragement to learn, these two women found that they had an option with regard to lifestyle activity. They could now be disciples of Christ and choose to follow Him (as did the women of Luke 8). They were not married, so they could be totally devoted to the Lord.
Next, this has bearing on Wayne Grudem’s favorite passage that we will come to discuss on the blog soon—1 Timothy 2. Many have interpreted 1 Timothy 2 for every woman, whether married or single. However, Wayne Grudem and other complementarians are wrong about this, because the passage specifically mentions “childbearing,” and the rest of the epistle discusses young married wives “keeping house” (chapt. 5), so the passage refers to only married women.
To support Luke 10:38-42, and make sense of 1 Timothy 2, we have the words of the Apostle Paul:
“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order, and TO SECURE YOUR UNDIVIDED DEVOTION TO THE LORD” (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).
For the unmarried woman, she need only be concerned with pleasing the Lord. If she is a good homemaker, and loves the domestic arena, that’s great—but she is not BOUND to be a homemaker or BOUND out of necessity to care for the home. I think that Jesus told Martha that her only necessary thing was to listen to His teaching because she was unmarried and had no need of a divided devotion. Maintaining her singleness, she could be totally dedicated to the Lord and His service. And it would pay for all single women to do the same as Mary—sit at His feet, learn His Word, and be ready for whatever great task He may commission you to perform.