21 July 2019

Luke 10:38-42

"Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her." (v.42)

Psalm: Psalm 15


In today's passage, Jesus is welcomed into the home of Martha, where her sister Mary is too. The Gospel-writer Luke doesn't name the village but we learn from John's Gospel that these two sisters lived with their brother Lazarus in Bethany (John 12:1-8). This village was on the top of Mount Olives, just a short walk from Jerusalem.

In the 1st century AD people were usually identified by their family relationships, men most commonly by their father. Simon, son of Jonah, for example (Matthew 16:17). Women were defined by their relationship to their husbands or sons. Mary, the wife of Clopas, for example (John 19:25). But Lazarus is only ever identified by his place of residence (John 11:1) and Mary and Martha are only ever identified by their relationship with their brother. It seems this is a household of three siblings, with no parents or partners. It's the nearest we get to a 1st-century student house!

This passage is often interpreted as contrasting the active and the contemplative life. Jesus commends Mary, who has chosen to listen to him rather than help Martha with her tasks. But this is also a story about social standards and the freedom that Jesus brings. Mary sits at Jesus' feet – the usual position of a disciple when being instructed by a rabbi or teacher (Acts 22:3). Women were excluded from the study of the Torah, the most important part of the Jewish Scriptures. Rabbi Eliezer – a famous but notoriously strict Jewish teacher of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD – said, "Anyone who teaches his daughter Torah, it is as though he has taught her lechery." Women attended some religious assemblies, but their role was to listen rather than debate. So the rabbi interpreted the command, "Assemble the people – men, women and children" (Deuteronomy 31:12) to mean that the men should study, the women should listen and the children should "receive the reward for those who bring them". Women were expected to know the laws which related to the kitchen and the household, but no more.

Martha's complaint against Mary then is that by choosing to listen to Jesus she is forgetting her place. But Luke shows us that Jesus' ministry is to the marginalised: women, Samaritans, non-Jews and outcast Jews like Zacchaeus the tax-collector (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus has come to free people from the rules and regulations that bind them.


To Ponder:

  • Have you ever allowed the expectations of other people to define who you are? How might Jesus be challenging this?
  • Are there rules and regulations that are necessary for the Christian life? Who decides and how?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Ainger

Caroline Ainger is a Methodist minister based in Liverpool. She has a passion for creative worship, social justice issues and international development.

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