The story of Mary “sitting at Jesus’ feet” is a passage that is often misunderstood and if not misunderstood it is understood only partially. In spite of this I think it might be one of the most revolutionary passages in the entire Bible. It is a passage of proclamation. A proclamation of Jesus’ Gospel.
This passage is misunderstood when its focus is entirely upon Martha. I’ve even heard teachers on the radio and in the pulpit use such phrases as, “don’t be a Martha!” That’s horrible right? Martha was serving everyone. Her motives are largely hidden from us and we assume, with the help of our male chauvinist assumptions, that Martha was angry at Mary because she wasn’t helping in the kitchen … like all women were supposed to do.
When we say “don’t be a Martha” what are we really saying? Don’t get caught serving others? Don’t ask for help when you need it?
Martha is considered a busybody and her attitude is one to be avoided. While this may be true I assert that if we focus on her we are missing the greater point of this story and the reason why Luke included it in the first place.
Often we discuss that Mary chooses the “better part” because she is with Jesus. Ignoring her domestic responsibilities she chooses to sit next to him, on the floor, listening to what the teacher is saying. Again, this may be true. If it is true it’s only a part of the truth. It’s a necessary but insufficient understanding of this passage.
There is no doubt that Mary’s actions in this story and Jesus response to them were abundantly clear to those in the room watching these events take place. When Luke wrote about this event in his Gospel account he took care to make his point very clear and his earliest readers and listeners would certainly have understood it.
Unfortunately, Luke’s earth shattering statement is largely lost on modern readers but his earliest readers and listeners would have apprehended the message with complete clarity.
The point of conflict in this story, and if you believe Donald Miller every good story has conflict, is that point when an exasperated Martha comes out and yells at Jesus wanting him to fix her sister. Or at least punish her by shaming her back into the actions that were expected of a young woman. Mary was expected back in the kitchen.
We may think we know why but let us ask again. Why was Martha angry?
The common assumption is because Mary was not helping in the kitchen. Again, this is only partly the problem. There was a greater one. (I bet Martha didn’t like help.)
Martha was angry with Mary because Mary was embarrassing her and from Martha’s point of view Mary was embarrassing herself too. Mary was acting in a very uncouth, undignified way. She was very unladylike.
Martha is angry because Mary is neglecting the domestic duties and sitting with the male disciples. But Martha isn’t mad because Mary isn’t helping her. (I bet Martha liked doing things on her own.) I think Martha could care less if Mary helped her but she was very concerned that Mary act right.
Let me propose: Martha is mad at Mary because she is acting like a man.
Consider this: Mary was acting like a man because she wanted to be a disciple of Jesus.
Rather than focus on the wrath of Martha let’s think about the response of Jesus who says: “Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her.”
What is better? Mary has chosen to assume the role of Jesus’ disciple and Jesus is boldly claiming that that decision is the better one. It runs contra to the typical household arrangements of the day. It was a violation of the cultural mores of the time. Jesus is saying to Martha and in the hearing of all the other disciples that choosing to be his disciple is the most important thing and since Mary has chosen it — it will not be taken from her. (Unfortunately in the 1900 + years since this event “it” has been taken away from her.)
Why do we think this? We don’t assume that Mary is acting like a disciple. We are told explicitly that she is with a little Greek metaphor. Three little words: parà toùs pódas.
“She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” – Luke 10:39
For some what I am saying may seem old hat but I want to reinforce this idea today and hopefully see how the Gospel is proclaimed in these three little words, “at the feet”. It’s the same phrase from which we draw the word and concept of pedagogy.
There is no debate about the fact that this is a technical term denoting one as a disciple of a rabbi or teacher. The phrase is found in other places in the New Testament and there are three I’ll emphasize today all written by Luke.
Let’s review them briefly:
Acts 22:3 ~ The Apostle Paul and Gamaliel
Here we see Paul in the first of his self-defenses before being taken to Rome. He is speaking to Jewish people who want him dead and he begins by telling them his impeccable Jewish credentials. One of these credentials was being a disciple of Gamaliel in Jerusalem. Paul does not say say explicitly that he was Gamaliel’s student or disciple. He says that he was parà toús pódas Gamaliel. He “sat at the feet” of Gamaliel.
Luke 10:39 ~ Mary and Jesus
This is the one we are examining today. Mary is described with the same words. As Paul was to Gamaliel (student to Rabbi) so Mary was to Jesus (disciple to master).
Luke 8:35 ~ The man formerly known as Legion and Jesus
This is an odd example of this phrase. And like the previous two I believe the man formerly known as Legion is described as a brand new, freshly scrubbed and exorcised disciple of Jesus. Para tous podas Jesus. He was found sitting at Jesus feet. Again, this does not describe his physical location but his relational location to Jesus. (student to master)
You’ll note that Legion immediately wanted to go with Jesus wherever he was going. He was following in the same kind of Jewish footsteps of the student who would go wherever his Rabbi went. Remember Rob Bell’s thoughtful video about being covered in the dust of your rabbi? Legion must have watched Nooma videos. (Some people would claim that Legion produced them.)
When Paul, Mary and the man formerly known as Legion are described as sitting at the feet of Gamaliel or Jesus their location in the room is not being described but instead their relational location to their teacher. They are the disciple and the other is the master.
The Gospel Proclaimed?
If a killer of Christians, a former demon possessed pagan, or a young pious Jewess can become students of the Messiah then anyone can.
Everyone can become a disciple of Jesus. It is open to everyone regardless of status. Whether their status is former murderer of Christians, former demon-possessed man who cut himself, or a lowly pious Jewish woman. Each of these three disciples in their unique contexts were a scandal.
The Story is Not Just for Women
This story is important not just for women but for all of us. If Mary, Legion and Saul could become disciples of Jesus then any of us surely can. I don’t see any demon possessed men here nor do I see anyone guilty of serious persecution of Christians. I do see women. However, the women here are not bound by the cultural tensions and unholy expectations that Mary was under. Therefore, it is not merely OK but good and requested by God himself that you step out of unnecessary cultural or emotional restraints and become a disciple of Jesus … become a student of the master.
Become “parà tous pódas Jesus.”
This story is not just for women but for men too because it reminds us that we aren’t alone in bearing the image of God. Some early Christian writers believed women did not really bear the image of God but that only men did. This is a clear violation of Genesis 1 and 2 and unfortunately, this idea is propogated in much more subtle ways today.
How wonderful it is for us men to know that we are not the only image bearers of God and that we are also partners with our sisters in becoming more and more like Jesus himself. We have sisters who walk along side of us leading us and teaching and caring for us and also serving us just like Martha. None of these roles are to be denied women nor men. These roles are determined not by gender, class or other status markers. They are determined by calling and giftedness.
But, this Story is Especially for Women
The story is not just for women but it is especially for women. The Christian woman is to be a disciple of Christ in no less way than a man. She is not some Rapunzel like beauty who has to be rescued any more than all of us are. Each of us is that person needing saving by Jesus.
Christian women aren’t “princesses” in the derogatory use of that term. They are co-heirs with Christ as Galatians 3 reminds us. Not princesses who must be pampered, not beauties that need to be rescued but sisters or partners in the Gospel of the Kingdom.
For those of us who have daughters I can’t help but think how powerful this story is. For those of us who have wives I think the same thing. Women, according to Christian scripture, are not so delicate that they must be protected from discipleship to Jesus. On the contrary, women have died alongside men and often died all by themselves because of their faithfulness to Christ. They are not beauties that are shut up in towers that Christian men must rescue and thus giving their lives meaning. They are sisters to us all, daughters of God the Father, the King of the universe and sisters to his Son Jesus Christ. They are co-heirs, fellows in the work in which we are all called to participate.
Let us all, men and women, parà toùs pódas Jesus.