For many of the stories in Luke’s Gospel I have an image stored away in the bowels of my memory. It will be a simple line drawing meant to be colored in with those fat crayons kids are given. It will be a picture I worked on while listening to the story and its interpretation at the hands of Sunday School teachers.
The picture for the Mary and Martha story that is today’s Gospel reading features Mary modestly dressed and sitting among a bunch of bearded men who are listening to Jesus. The men are seated on stools and benches. Mary by contrast is sitting on the floor, right at Jesus’ feet, looking up at him with total, meek adoration. Martha is there, too, standing over Jesus, decidedly shrewish. Hands on hips, scowling, her mouth is open in complaint. This is the way in which cultural attitudes toward women are taught to the very young.
Let’s picture a different line drawing. In this one Mary is sitting at a table with Jesus, the bearded males, and a few other women. All of them are listening, some getting ready to respond. Mary is gesturing with one hand while she pounds the table with the other. Jesus is smiling as she argues her point. In this image, Martha stands at Jesus’ shoulder. She wears a towel tied around her waist, one identical to the towel Jesus tied around his waist when he washed the feet of his disciples. She waits a bit impatiently for Jesus to give her his attention. She looks unhappy.
All my life I’ve been hearing women lament that they are “a Martha”. They don’t pray enough. They work too hard. They haven’t time for contemplation or Bible study. The truth is that they are carrying the day-to-day well-being of their families on their shoulders, and they simply don’t have those precious moments where they could sit still and listen. In my mother’s generation and in mine, women were looked down on by the church if they took care of their households instead of learning and growing in knowledge and love of God – but equally judged if they neglected their duties in order to metaphorically sit at Jesus’ feet. And sitting at his feet was about the best they could hope for.
What makes a difference to this impossible situation? Sharing the burden for care and feeding of households among women and men alike would certainly help. Here’s a third line drawing for the children to color. In this one Mary and Martha are both sitting at the table with Jesus and other men and women. They are both listening avidly. Behind them stands a man with a pitcher in his hands. He is listening while he pours wine. Another has brought a loaf of bread to the table, and he is cutting it with his belt knife. A young girl is serving fish. A young boy is sweeping up around the seated adults.
The better part is indeed listening to Jesus, conversing with our fellow disciples, learning and growing. The better part is throwing off our ego concerns and our worries in order to sit in the presence of the Holy. In order for that to happen, we all have to take a turn wrapping the towels around our waists and serving. The better part is making it possible for everyone to participate in the table conversation because everyone is helping make it happen.