Sometimes we are just too familiar with some of the things Jesus said and did to feel the bite. Sometimes the meaning of what Jesus spoke eludes us because we are not familiar with the culture of the day or they don’t sound strange in our modern ears of multicultural inclusion. Read the next few verses and then think about them and see what strikes you as shocking about them:
As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.” But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42 NLT).
Most lessons on this passage talk about the importance of putting Jesus first. Others emphasize the first importance of studying Jesus’ teachings. Some emphasize the danger of being distracted by all the little details in life and miss the truly important one: following Jesus. While these messages are true and are appropriately gleaned from this passage, they each miss the radical bite of what Jesus said and did in this event at the house of Martha and Mary.
A related passage of Scripture can possibly help us understand a key phrase in this event where “Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught.” This related passage lets us hear through first century ears what Mary’s actions meant. The words of this passage come from the apostle Paul and are quoted by Luke who gave us the gospel account we just read. They are part of the Apostle Paul’s self-description of his Jewish background and his training as a Rabbi by the presumed greatest teacher in Israel at the time, Gamaliel. They were spoken in Hebrew and translated into Greek by Luke, so the word choice and parallel to the previous text are no accident:
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day” (Acts 22:3).
To sit at the feet of a great teacher, especially one known as a Rabbi as Jesus was, meant a very specific thing. You were chosen by the teacher to be one of his disciples in training to be a Rabbi. Because of our familiarity with the passage, we largely miss the sharp edges of Mary’s behavior, along with Jesus’ even more radical affirmation of her behavior.
Hospitality in Jesus’ time was a supreme virtue for a woman. It was what women did and was largely their responsibility. It was Mary’s role in culture to stay behind the scenes and serve as a welcoming and gracious hostess.
The first sharp edge we must feel bite into our understanding of this passage: Mary had the audacity to NOT fulfill her role as a hostess.
The second sharp edge: Mary abandoned her sister who was fulfilling this task of hospitality. Her sister, Martha, was (according to their culture) appropriately angry with Mary for shirking her responsibility as a woman and as a hostess.
The third sharp edge: Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught.” This was shocking: women not only couldn’t be a Rabbi,Rabbi’s were not supposed to talk to women in public. Mary’s actions would have be seen by her peers as an audacious move to place herself in the role of a Rabbi in training! She didn’t serve as hostess and she didn’t retreat to the shadows, other room, or behind the tent flap, and leave all talk about important spiritual matters to the men. Instead, she placed herself in the middle of the conversation in the position of a chosen disciple in training: she “sat at the Lord’s feet.”
The fourth sharp edge: Not only does Jesus reject Martha’s culturally appropriate complaint against Mary, but he also gently rebukes Martha for making it. Then, Jesus affirms all that Mary did and what it meant, asserting that her choice to do it wouldn’t be taken away from her!
“My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her”
Pentecost meant the coming of the last days. God’s Kingdom was breaking into human time through the establishment of a new people, Jesus’ church. Restoring God’s original intent to creation through this new movement was emphasized, and one result of that was that both men and women would prophesy (Acts 2:18) in God’s people in whom the Holy Spirit lived. A short time later, in the book of Acts, Luke describes Paul’s visit with Philip the evangelist and his four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:8-9).
Peter spoke at Pentecost of women who would prophesy as part of God’s re-creation of his intent through the church. Paul recognized that there were women in Corinth who rightfully prayed and prophesied in the assembly. Luke spoke of four daughters of Philip who prophesied before Paul and his mission team. These women could be called the spiritual daughters of Mary, about whom the Lord spoke plainly: “There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”
We will examine more examples next week if the Lord tarries another week. Until then, may Paul’s blessing to the Ephesians be ours in abundance:
Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love (Ephesians 6:25-26).