A Feminist Critique of the Mary/Martha Story
by Teri Daily
Luke 10: 38-42
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
I still remember the pump of adrenaline and dread when the words “Fight! Fight!” rang through the hallways of my public high school in rural North Carolina. Everyone would squeeze into the hall trying to see who made up the swirling rolling, slugging ball of color in the middle of the crowd. It often seemed that the most energy accompanied a fight between two girls—something known in American parlance as a “catfight.” While boys could fight over who took someone else’s parking space or who bumped the other while walking down the hall or even a totally transparent quest for dominance, it was assumed girls only fought each other over one thing—a boy. I confess I bought into this assumption, too. So much so that when I saw a fight between two females, my initial reaction was usually along the lines of “Have some dignity. Don’t let a guy see you fighting over him.” To watch the bonds of sisterhood be broken so openly seemed a betrayal of our shared gender, our common goals, and the resolve to no longer define ourselves by the judgment of men.
I understand now that I was responding to the role of “catfights” in our culture. Catfights began to be portrayed in American culture in the 1950s, first in pornographic and B-rated movies, then moving on to primetime television in the 1970s and 1980s. Who among us old enough to watch the nighttime soap opera Dynasty has forgotten the famous catfight between Krystal and Alexis? Susan Douglas describes it this way in her 1994 book, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media:
On one side was the blonde stay at home Krystal Carrington … in the other corner was the most delicious [bad girl] ever seen on television, the dark haired, scheming, career vixen, Alexis Carrington Colby … Krystal just wanted to make her husband happy; Alexis wanted to control the world. How could you not love a catfight between these two?
And there it is in a nutshell—women and their sometimes conflicting goals in life laid bare to be exploited at will by those with political, social, and even religious agendas. A sharp line had been drawn that divided women from other women. When the term “catfight” was used in the media to refer to disagreements among women on issues like the Equal Rights Amendment, it’s been said that with it came with three things: 1) the trivialization of important issues for women (just putting the issue in such a demeaning context trivialized it outright), 2) the promotion of “division rather than unity among women from different ethnic, class, generational and regional lines,” and 3) “[the replacement of] the notion of ‘sisterhood’ with competitive individualism.”
So no wonder many of us are uncomfortable with today’s gospel reading on Martha and Mary. Jesus and his disciples have turned their faces to Jerusalem and, on the way, they stop and are welcomed into the home of Martha and Mary. We can imagine Martha scurrying about—getting enough clean glasses out of the dishwasher, reloading toilet paper, making sure clean hand towels are in the guest bathroom, “whipping up” a gourmet meal while trying to make it look effortless, smiling and gracious to everyone. Finally, she is absolutely frazzled and as our text says “distracted.” So she comes to Jesus and lets off steam: "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But Jesus answers with, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
And ever since these words were remembered by the early church community and written down by the evangelist, there have been two types of women—the Mary’s and the Martha’s. I say two types of women because we almost never hear men say anything like “I’m a Mary living in a Martha world” or “I need to embrace the Mary in me.” Instead, the story has been used to divide women into categories, or at least to make a judgment about how we as women should understand our possibilities for participating in the world around us—as if those were competing options.
We have the story written from a man’s perspective, since we believe the gospel writers were most likely men. So here’s a version of the story from the perspective of Mary, by poet U.A. Fanthorpe. It helps to know that Marty in the poem is Martha, Josh refers to Jesus, and Lazzie is Martha’s and Mary’s brother Lazarus.
Of course he meant it kindly. I know that.
I know Josh—as well as anyone can know
The Son of God. All the same, he slipped up
Over this one. After all, a Son is only a son
When you come to think about it. And this
Was between sisters. Marty and me,
We understand each other. For instance, when Lazzie died,
We didn't need to spell it out between us,
Just knew how to fix the scenario
So Josh could do his bit—raising Lazzie, I mean,
From the dead. He has his own way of doing things,
Has to muddle people first, so then the miracle
Comes as a miracle. If he'd just walked in
When Lazzie was iII, and said OK, Lazzie,
You're off the sick list now — that'd have lacked impact.
But all this weeping, and groaning, and moving of stones,
And praying in public, and Mart saying I believe, etcetera,
Then Lazarus, come forth! and out comes Lazzie
In his shroud. Well, even a halfwit could see
Something out of the ordinary was going on.
But this was just ordinary. A lot of company,
A lot of hungry men, not many helpers,
And Mart had a go at me in front of Josh,
Saying I'm all on my own out there. Can't you
Tell that sister of mine to take her finger out,
And lend a hand? Well, the thing about men is,
They don't realise how temperamental good cooks are.
And Mart is very good. Believe you me.
She was just blowing her top. No harm in it.
I knew that. But then Josh gives her
This monumental dressing-down, and really,
It wasn't fair. The trouble with theology is, it features
Too much miraculous catering. Those ravens feeding Elijah,
For instance. I ask you! They'd have been far more likely
To eat him. And all those heaven-sent fast-food take-aways—
Quail, and manna, and that. And Josh himself
The famous fish-butty picnic, and that miraculous
Draught of fishes. What poor old Mart could have done with
Was a miraculous draught of coffee and sandwiches
Instead of a ticking-off. And the men weren't much help.
Not a thank you among them, and never a thought
Of help with the washing-up.
Don't get me wrong. Of course I love Josh,
Wonder, admire, believe. He knows I do.
But to give Marty such a rocket
As if she was a Pharisee, or that sort of type,
The ones he has it in for. It wasn't right.
Still, Josh himself, as I said—well, he is only
The Son of God, not the Daughter; so how could he know?
And when it comes to the truth, I'm Marty's sister.
I was there; I heard what was said, and
I knew what was meant. The men will write it up later
From their angle, of course. But this is me, Mary,
Setting the record straight.
As this story has come down to us and has been interpreted in our tradition, there is a separation between Mary and Martha. It’s like the prayer team against the altar guild. But the proposed dichotomy that we read into this story is not good for our spiritual health—because our Christian hospitality and service should always be grounded in prayer and learning, and our contemplation should lead us closer to others. We are all both Mary and Martha, and probably a few other characters besides.
If we have to make this scene into a judgment of sorts (and it’s hard not to, since Jesus says Mary has chosen “the better part”), then maybe we should make it not about who’s hurrying around and who is sitting still, but about who is distracted and who is present in the moment. In today’s world we are all pulled in a million different directions, and it’s hard to be present in the moment and to remember what the “one needful thing” is. Maybe that’s what we gain during those moments of listening to God, the moments of quiet. But we can’t stay in those reflective moments forever. At the end of each of our worship services we’re sent out into the world, just as at the end of the parable of the Good Samaritan that we heard last week, Jesus tells the lawyer to “go and do likewise.”
The point of this gospel reading about Mary, Martha, and Jesus might be more about how we do something than what it is that we do. Whether we’re sitting still in listening and prayer, or doing acts of service, can we remember the One who underlies all that we are and do? Can we not be distracted by the “many things” and forget the “one needful thing”? Can we stop looking frantically for what will make things “perfect” or will make us “worthy,” and know instead that the one thing we need is right there in front of us, ours all along? I think that’s the question for Martha and Mary, and it is for us, too.
 Douglas, Susan J. (1994) Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With The Mass Media. New York: Random House, pages 241-242.
 From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catfight#cite_note-13, which draws in part on the work from Susan Douglas from above.
 I owe the idea of looking at Mary and Martha’s interaction as a cat fight to Danielle Shroyer in her post at The Hardest Question website: http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/lec16cgospel/.
 “Unauthorised version,” from U.A.Fanthorpe, Collected Poems 1978-2003, (Calstock, Cornwall: Peterloo Poets, 2005) as quoted in a sermon by Colin Gibson at http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~Serlewis/mind/marymartha.html.
You might also enjoy these articles by Teri Daily:
These Kids are Gorgeous: Seeing Beauty in an Asymmetrical, Disproportionate World
Love Made Gritty
Love's Oblivion: Mary Anoints Jesus' Feet
Angels Everywhere: Revelation's Image of the New Jerusalem
The Space within the Trinity: All Beings Included
The Space to See Things Differently: The Ascension of Christ
Mothers of God
Bearing Witness to Broken Bodies
So You want to be a Doctor?