A Woman’s Place
In Luke 10:38-41 why did Jesus reprimand Martha for asking Mary to help her in the kitchen?
I’m not sure I would call it a “reprimand,” but I understand what I assume is your main concern. Jesus’ unwillingness to allow Mary to help Martha in preparing the meal gives the impression that providing food for others in spirit of service is incompatible with listening to Jesus. It seems to appear that Jesus is devaluing the work of women at home. But before reaching any conclusions, we should examine the text from the perspective of the teachings of Jesus, taking into consideration some contemporary cultural practices.
1.Martha is the host: As Jesus approaches the village where Martha and Mary live, Martha goes out and invites Him to come to her house. This act of genuine hospitality is one Jesus is willing to accept. Luke tells about other cases of people who invited Jesus to come into their homes. Levi invited Jesus to his home for a banquet (Luke 5:27-29); Pharisees (Luke 7:36; 11:37) and even a prominent Pharisee (Luke 14:1) invited Jesus to their homes. In the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus invited Himself; but the publican was delighted to receive Him (Luke 19:5, 6). The case of Martha is the only example we have of Jesus accepting table fellowship offered by a female host. Jesus accepted such invitations in order to break down barriers, demonstrate that His ministry was all-inclusive (Luke 7:33-35), and teach and illustrate through His own conduct what God’s kingdom is like. Sitting at the table was not simply a matter of eating, but a unique opportunity to teach those who invited Him. Martha invited Jesus knowing that she was responsible for the food and that the Rabbi would use her home as a teaching center.
2. Concern for food: Jesus was probably not traveling alone. Consequently, Martha had to prepare food for several persons. The text says that Martha “was distracted [literally, “distracted/dragged away”] by all the preparations that had to be made” (Luke 10:40, NIV)* by all the household service. She was overburdened with the amount of work that had to be done for the honored guest. Mary, knowing that during the table fellowship the Rabbi would teach, decided to sit beside Him, at His feet, the posture of a disciple who is eager to learn from the teacher. Jesus’ primary purpose for table fellowship was being fulfilled.
The request Martha made to Jesus is understandable. She needed help in order to fulfill her responsibilities as host properly. The contrasts are interesting: Mary is silent while being instructed; Martha speaks with a request for the teacher. Jesus’ response is kind but clear. The double vocative—“Martha, Martha”—expresses sympathy and emotional attachment. He cares for her and for what she is doing, but she has to understand that there is something more important than material bread. The issue becomes one of priorities. He seems to tell her that it is not necessary to provide for Him an extraordinary meal; she needn’t overextend herself. He tells her that His table fellowship aims primarily at sharing the message of the kingdom of God. Since the question is one of priorities, Mary has chosen the best portion (meal).
3.Women as students: What Jesus did in Martha’s house was extraordinary in the setting of contemporary Jewish practice. In general, women were barely exposed to formal education. They were instructed at home by their mothers in matters related to the laws of purity and uncleanness and their household responsibilities. That a rabbi would personally instruct a woman was almost unthinkable in first-century Judaism. Women could learn in the synagogue, but their attendance at the synagogue was sporadic on account of their monthly ovulation and the fact that they had to take care of their children. In that setting the event in the house of Martha is special. Jesus is teaching Mary, and is asking Martha to come and learn from Him. At the same time, He’s lightening her load and freeing her in order to make her more efficient in His service. She could also be a disciple.
* Scripture quotations credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Now retired, Angel Manuel Rodríguez served many years as director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference.