Welcome to Part 3 of my series on Jesus and Gender! If you missed the introduction, check out Part I, and if you’d like to read about how radical even Jesus’ most passing interactions with women were for his day, check out Part 2. Part 3 will be devoted to the deep friendships Jesus had with women.
Two of Jesus’ best friends were two women, Mary and Martha. I will mostly refer to this Mary as Mary of Bethany so we don’t get her confused with his mother or Mary Magdalene. We first encounter Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42: Jesus is in the home of Mary of Bethany and Martha. Martha is mad because her sister isn’t being a good woman and working to entertain the guests, but instead is at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, and she asks Jesus to make her sister help her. Jesus says, “Martha, Martha…you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed, only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”
A great rabbi’s students were always at his feet, learning to become rabbis themselves (In Acts 22:3, Paul describes himself as having been ‘brought up at the feet of Gamaliel,’ his way of saying who his rabbinical teacher was). According to Woman in the World of Jesus*: “Jewish women were not permitted to touch the Scriptures; and they were not taught the Torah itself, although they were instructed in accordance with it for the proper regulation of their lives. A rabbi did not instruct a woman in the Torah…but Jesus related to [Mary] in a teacher-disciple relationship He admitted her into “the study” and commended her for the choice.” (118) Jesus sees Mary as his student, although she is a woman, and when her sister tries to get her to go back to the “woman’s work” in the kitchen, Jesus defends Mary’s place as his student, at his feet. I love the way Evelyn and Frank Stagg sum this up in Woman in the World of Jesus:
The story vindicates Mary’s rights to be her own person. It vindicates her right to be Mary and not Martha. It vindicated a woman’s right to opt for the study and not be compelled to be in the kitchen. It would go beyond the story’s intention to deny Martha the right to opt for the hostess or homemaker role, even though Jesus accorded a higher value to Mary’s choice of ‘the word’ than Martha’s choice of the meal. Jesus did not make the two exclusive. (118)
I think this is important– so often when you hear this story (and if you are a woman and you’ve ever been in a women’s Bible study, you have surely heard this story presented this way), it’s all about how you don’t need to be a Martha, you need to be a Mary. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was saying to Martha. I think he was affirming Mary’s choice and telling her sister, you know, your sister isn’t like you, and that’s OK. Soon we will see that even though she was often in the kitchen, Martha was still listening to Jesus teachings (ha, maybe like me she liked to listen to podcasts while she cooked?) and had great faith in him, just a different way of showing it.
The next episode featuring Jesus and his friends Mary and Martha is John 11:1-43: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. The text says “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Also, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Jesus had close, deep relationships with women, and when they hurt, he hurt.
One of the most significant aspects of this text is Jesus’ interaction with Martha. Despite her being rebuked by Jesus for her criticism of her sister in the Luke story about these sisters, Martha demonstrates in this story that even though she was busy in the kitchen in that instance, she has not been ignoring Jesus’ teaching: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him but Mary stayed at home.” This time it’s Mary who sticks to the world of the domestic and Martha who goes out to meet Jesus.
From The Women Around Jesus by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:
In the packed house of mourning, Martha hears of his coming, takes the initiative, and leaves the house to meet Jesus by herself. She rushes up to Jesus with a remark containing all the grief, all the anger, and all the disappointment of the last few days…For Martha, this remark is a springboard, the introduction to a passionate conversation about faith. Martha is not ‘a woman’ who ‘keeps silence’ in the community. She does not leave theology to the theologians. She carries on a vigorous debate. She does not cry, she does not cast herself at Jesus’ feet, she does not give in. She struggles with God as Job did. She charges Jesus with failure. She does not give up, just as Jacob did not give up at the Jabbok when he was wrestling with God. (24)
Then, Martha makes an impressive confession of her faith in Jesus. Again from The Women Around Jesus:
Martha responds with a confession of Christ which stands out as a special climax in the New Testament: ‘You are Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.’ At most this can be compared with Peter’s confession of Christ in Matthew 16:16. Thus John placed the confession of Christ on the lips of a woman, a woman who was known for her openness, her strength, and her practical nature. This is a confession of Christ which takes similar form only once more in the other Gospels, where it is uttered by Peter. For the early church, to confess Christ in this way was the mark of an apostle. The church was built up on Peter’s confession, and to this day, the Popes understand themselves as Peter’s successors. (24)
I think this shows that Martha has learned from her encounter with Jesus, in which he said Mary was the one who chose rightly. Martha has learned and has now become the sister with the greater faith.
However, in the next chapter, Martha’s sister Mary will demonstrate her faith not with a great confession, but with an act of great love. In John 12:1-8, Mary of Bethany, anoints Jesus’ feet while he dines at Lazarus’ house. Judas objects, but Jesus defends Mary. It should be noted that nowhere in this account does it say that Mary was a prostitute. Also: this is Mary of Bethany, NOT Mary of Magdala, aka Mary Magdalene. I’m on a mission to disabuse the world of the notion that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, which is not stated anywhere in the Bible, but that’s a story for tomorrow’s post!
I’m just going to post a ginormously long quote here because it just sums the whole scene up so well: From The Women Around Jesus: “There is a supper. Martha is serving, and now, Mary is the protagonist. Again, she is not helping, but what she does comes from the very depths of her personality. She takes a flask of very expensive perfume and pours it over the feet of Jesus, who is reclining beside her on the cushions round the table. She may not be good at words, but what she does without speaking and yet with great self-confidence has a spontaneous effect: the whole house becomes filled with the fragrance. The sweetness of her action is evident everywhere. This time she did not have Martha to urge her on. This time she is completely herself, and in doing so transcends herself. All the elemental ways in which she was accustomed to express her spontaneous love for Jesus, her respect, her affection, her tenderness – the tears, the concern to be near him and to have his support, the spontaneous silence – are now released with the fragrant oil she has poured on the tired and dusty feet of her friend. And even that is not enough: with her hair she wipes away the dust and oil from his feet and dries them. That was the task of the lowliest slave: the master at the table used to wipe his dirty hands on the slave’s hair. Mary performs this servile task in a way incomprehensible to many women today. She does what no man would have done – it would have been inconceivable even to Martha…But what she does, she does of her own accord and in the light of her personality. It is her idea, her way of showing love. It is her ‘revolution’. Perhaps Martha stood there transfixed and dumbfounded at such independence…Mary came out of the shadows to become totally herself: the clumsy, loving, independent, tender, restrained, and yet spontaneous woman.” (55-56)
Mary’s actions are as much a statement of faith as her sister Martha’s earlier words—she is anointing Jesus to prepare him for his burial, and in this is affirming her belief that he is the Messiah, and that he has been sent to die. To me, these two sisters, with their different ways of loving Jesus and showing their faith demonstrate that Jesus wants us to be who we are and serve and love him in ways that are natural to us, in ways that we are gifted.
Tomorrow I’ll be tackling the topic of Jesus’ women disciples!