Thursday, July 26, 2012

Scarring Culture

My mother works with wood.  She is  less carpenter, more artisan, who attends the warmth of her organic medium with the tenderness of, well, a mother.  Her handiwork fills the homes of our family in the form of beds and tables, desks and mantles.  She has asserted, as one who has seen the effects of this mistake, that when sanding a piece, bringing its glow to the surface, turning the wood satin beneath her fingers, that to go against the grain scars the wood.  It leaves the wood marked and sets it apart from the rest of the piece.  Thus the colloquialism, “against the grain” can be taken to mean a scarring of culture, a change that is counter to the status quo.  A way of doing, a way of being, that is revolutionary; and can change the culture in which the action occurs.

So it is with two sisters, in their home in Bethany.  One adhering to the normative cultural practices of her day; the other, flouting them.  And Jesus saying the later has chosen the better way.         

The Sisters at Bethany: Luke 10:38-42

Returning to the text, we find that immediately before Jesus dines at the home of Martha and Mary, 70 disciples have returned.  Jesus, having sent them out to tell of his works and mission, rejoices and offers a prayer of thanksgiving.  Then in answer to a  lawyer’s question, Jesus gives the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:17-37).  The thrust of this parable turns the expected worldview of a Jewish lawyer on its head by insinuating that the law requires one to love God and people, even one’s enemies.  Jesus, in verse 37 then admonishes the lawyer to “go and do likewise.”  The command of “do” insinuating action; which is important when considering that within a few verses it appears that Martha is rebuked for “doing,” where Mary is seemingly lauded for not doing.   Following this teaching, Jesus and his disciples leave their current town and head into Bethany. 
Once in Bethany, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed into the home of Martha.  There is some disagreement between scholars as to whether this particular abode is the location of a house church or merely her home.  (The Greek, οἰκίαν, means house and Luke’s use of the singular, feminine, genitive ending implies that the home is a possession of Martha.[1]  Therefore, if it is the site of a home church, Martha could be considered the leader thereof.)  Whether a house church or not, Martha opens her home to Jesus willingly.  With the Lord and his disciples inside, Martha’s sister, Mary, “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he had to say,” while Martha is “distracted with much serving” (10:39-40).  Martha then questions Jesus’ allowance of Mary’s seeming abdication of domestic duties; and Jesus responds to her by saying that Mary has chosen “the good portion which will not be taken away from her” (10:42).

This passage has been the crux of generations of debate regarding gender roles within the home and the church; both Mary and Martha having been cast as archetypes for contemplative and service-oriented lives, as well as exemplars of what women are not and are permitted to do within the context of ecclesiastical service, respectively.  (That the NIV renders verse 40 as “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made,” advances an a priori theory of a domestic origin, thereby subtly negating other legitimate catalysts for Martha’s distraction.)  However, most scholars do agree Mary’s reclining at Jesus’ feet is radical for the first century; and it is this behavior that causes Martha’s offense.  Bishop Tom Wright claims that “no doubt [Martha] was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions.”[2]  Why?  Because Mary would be sitting at Jesus’ feet in the male part of the house, instead of remaining in the back rooms with the other women.  Bishop Wright likens this behavior to a Western, twenty-first century guest following their host into his or her bedroom at night to sleep there, instead of staying in the guest bedroom made up for that very purpose.  First century Jewish women were generally not permitted in the men’s areas unless they were serving food.  Thus Mary’s positioning herself there warrants the audience’s attention.
By situating herself at Jesus’ feet, Mary is not only flouting her culture, but also asserting herself as a student of Jesus.  Mary would not act thus merely for self-fulfillment, nor simply to soak up her beloved teacher’s presence; instead, Mary is doing this in order than she may be a rabbi (“teacher”) herself.  Bishop Wright references Paul’s relationship with Gamaliel to illustrate this concept; emphasizing that in the first century, learning for the sake of learning was not an occupation entered into by the common person.  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.[3]      

As he illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus allowing Mary to sit at his feet as a student and then telling Martha that her sister has indeed chosen the better way, the Lord is showing his followers how his Kingdom is to affect their comfortable ways of living.  In radical and counter-cultural ways.  Those who have been prohibited from learning and teaching now are welcomed as equals with their brethren.  Those who are unclean, as the Samaritan woman and the man in Christ’s parable, are now made equally clean and included in Christ.  Thus, Mary’s theological education does not come at the expense of Martha; rather the allowance of Mary to sit at Jesus’ feet is a liberation for them both.[4]  They are freed from solely domestic contributions to ministerial service that is unparalleled in their day.[5] 

A revelation which will become even more crystalline as we look at the Greek on Tuesday.

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

[1] Warren Carter, “Getting Martha out of the Kitchen: Luke 10.38-24 Again,” in A Feminist Companion to Luke, ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff, (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 215-231.  And Veronica Koperski, “Women and Discipleship in Luke,” in A Feminist Companion to Luke, ed. Amy-Jill Levine with Marianne Blickenstaff, (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 161-196. 
[2] Bishop N.T. Wright, “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis,” St John’s College, Durham, September 4 2004.
[3] Wright, “Women’s service in Church,” 2004.
[4] Koperski,Veronica.  “Women and Discipleship in Loke 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.” 183.
[5] Ibid, 195.

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