Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How a Servant is to Serve, a lesson from Mary and Martha

Martha and Mary by He Qi Chin

I’ve been Martha.  Not in the way you’d expect, the doing-all-the-things-because-I’m-a-beaver manner.  But in that I feel this unexplainable weight to meet the androcentric expectations of my more patristic brethren.  I’ve held my tongue, when I knew it was not what was being required of me at the moment, in settings where more traditional believers facilitated the gathering.  And I’ve relied on men to speak for me in similar settings, when I knew my job was to speak up for myself, or on behalf of sisters who had been belittled into silence.  I’ve hastily back-pedaled when asked if I desire to or was teaching God’s Word; and I’ve looked demurely at the floor, dying a little bit on the inside, instead of challenging the ideals spouted by denominational leaders. 
I’ve been Martha.  Distracted too much with the worry of how other people will react to my intentions or actions, to sit at my Master’s feet and quietly, though publicly, declare that I will be His student, so that I may be a teacher of His way to others.  Worried about the hard work of having to defend why I think what I’m doing is scriptural, why women should be permitted to behave thus.  Worried at the reaction towards my husband, who leans a little more closely to the traditional way of doing things than me.  Worried that my ministry or my voice or even the person for whom I’m advocating might suffer unnecessarily for my brazen speech.  Worried with the details of service, of how things will come off; because these events will reflect on me as a leader and my ability thereto.  Worried.  To the point of distraction, so that I’ve missed my Master’s presence in these beautiful moments. 
And because of this, I find that I might have more in common with Martha than Mary.

The Sisters at Bethany: Luke 10:38-42

As we mentioned on Thursday, By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary is signaling her intention to become a teacher herself; and Jesus declares that she is right to do so.[1]   However, if this is the sole intent of this narrative, Mary’s theological education comes at the expense of Martha.[2]  To counter the seeming unfairness towards Martha, Veronica Koperski proffers the theory that it is not Martha’s busyness that is being chastised, but her anxiety.[3]
The weight of this idea falls mostly on the translation of the Greek verbdiakouewfrom verse 40.  According to Klaus Hess, in this particular passage, it means “service at a table;” however, this word occurs 34 times in the New Testament and in every use except this one, it implies “service, office, aid, support, distribution (of alms, etc.), office of a deacon.”[4]  In fact, Koperski contends that because of its usage in other New Testament passages, it is “not exclusively associated with table service, and the text gives no indication that a meal is involved.”[5]  In particular, she references a later passage in Luke 22:25-27 were this word expresses “the epitome of Jesus’ mission” and notes that “Jesus does not actually serve a meal, but charges his disciples to adopt the attitude of ‘one who serves.’”[6] Warren Carter asserts this position, noting that
in six of its eight occurrences in Acts diakonia indicates leadership and proclamation on behalf of God or of the church and the gospel.  In two of the six the administration and provision of material relief for those in need are indicated without separation of these tasks from the tasks of leadership and proclamation.  Partnership with others in the acts of ministry pervades all eight texts, as does the sense of ministering as the representative of God or of the church…thus [it] does not designate domestic or culinary activity.[7]
The question then becomes, why in this instance only does this verb refer to waiting tables?  Is it only because its subject is specifically female and could therefore offer no other service?  If this is the case, certainly Jesus’ words that Mary has choose the better portion indicates that becoming his student trumps domestic obligations.  On the other hand, both Carter and Koperski contend that Mary and Martha were involved, at some level, in local church leadership.  Carter posits that Martha’s anxiety stems from the exultant doing of this ministry, while Koperski attributes the worry to her feeling of being pulled away from her service therein, by the disapproval of others.[8]  While both theories certainly place more weight on Martha’s potential ministerial duties and make her seem less like a petulant child, neither can be adequately proven from the text itself. Yet, neither can a simplistic outburst concerning the unfair distribution of domestic duties.  What remains are Jesus’ words that Mary “has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (10:42). 
Thus however you read this particular word for service, as domestic in only this one instance or as service for the kingdom, the good portion for which Mary is lauded is: being aware of her Lord’s presence, of abandoning what is culturally expected to spend her time with him, soaking up his presence and his teaching even if it is socially unacceptable.  Because those are the only things that will sustain a servant of any ilk. 
I must encourage you: sit at Jesus’ feet, soak up His presence, and learn from Him through reading God’s Word.  Be prepared to share what you have learned, to freely give what you have freely been given.  And when societal boundaries seem to rise up against what you’re doing, cross them.  Like a rebel who hails from a kingdom where your King delights in eliminating the walls that keep us from Him.    

Enjoying this study?  Here's a link to other articles in this series: The Women Who Knew Jesus

[1]Wright, N. T., Bishop of Durham.  “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis.”  Conference paper for the Symposium “Men, Women and the Church,” St John’s College, Durham, September 4 , 2004.
[2]Veronica Koperski.  “Women and Discipleship in Luke 10:38-42 and Acts 6:1-7: The Literary Context of Luke-Acts.”  A Feminist Companion to Luke.  ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff, 161-196.  New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002, page 183.
[3] Ibid, 195.
[4] Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol 3 (Grand Rapides: Zondervan, 1986), s.v. “Serve, Deacon, Worship,” by K. Hess.   
[5] Koperski, “Women and Discipleship,” 183.
[6] Ibid, 182.
[7] Carter, Warren. “Getting Martha out of the Kitchen: Luke 10.38-24 Again.”  A Feminist Companion to Luke.  ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff, 215-231.  New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.  Originally published in CBQ 56 (1996): 264-280, page 222.
[8]Carter, “Getting Martha Out,” 230; Koperski, “Women and Discipleship,” 185.

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