Mary and Martha, origin
You know them; at least, you think you do. They’re as oft mentioned as that woman lurking at the end of Proverbs. Though, unlike her, they were real people. These two sisters who have been the archetypes for Do-ers and Be-ers since the ink dried on the good doctor’s papyrus.
Mary & Martha: the Sister Servants, in Luke10:38-42
Not to be flippant (for this is God’s Word to which we attend), but there have been seasons in which I have heard more about these two sisters, in the context of women’s studies, than I have about Christ Himself. And I will say, that as a quintessential Be-er, I always felt validated. Those Martha’s out there needed to take note, stop doing so much. The Lord Himself has said as much. It made me feel, well, like I got it. Haha. But I have learned that when I feel this way about a passage of scripture, likely I don’t have it. At all.But as I dig into the text, I don’t see two sisters, one the I-can’t-sit-still variety and the other a let’s-stop-and-smell-the-roses type, who are the archetypes against which we modern women should judge ourselves and one another. When I look at the cultural and historical background of this story, I learn a bit more about who each of these women were; what they might actually have been doing, and why Jesus lauded one over the other.
I know some of this may sound a little outside the traditional way this story is taught, particularly within the context of women’s studies. But I think that may only be because that’s how our teachers have learned it, and how their teachers learned it, etc… And when we look at the texts, dig into the original language, and place all of this against the first century Palestinian and Jewish backdrop, we see a little different picture.
What if I told you that the Greek verb “diakouew” from verse 40 is used 34 times in the New Testament, some of which are in reference to Jesus himself? You’d probably look quizzically at me; until I mention that translators generally apply the following meanings to this word: “service, office, aid, support, distribution (of alms, etc.), office of a deacon."* Except in this verse—the only time it is translated thus—translators say it means “service at a table."** Domestic duties. Why, when every other usage in the whole of scripture is does not mean that? We’re going to address that question in our third session.
For today, read the passage; read what comes immediately before these verses and what comes after. Recognize that this story is only found in Luke’s gospel. And like we did for our first reading of the Samaritian woman’s story, write a list of what is in the text; only facts that you can support with the words on the page—no suppositions, no inferences. And then be prepared to look at what cultural and historical evidence tells us about the world in which these two women lived, and how the definition of one word turned one woman into a waitress for posterity.
Enjoying this study? Here's a link to other articles in this series: The Women Who Knew Jesus
*Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol 3 (Grand Rapides: Zondervan, 1986), s.v. “Serve, Deacon, Worship,” by K. Hess.
**Klaus Hess, "Serve, Deacon, Worship."