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Balancing work and reflection is tricky. Most people in Western cultures are forced to live harried lives. Often their full schedules are full of "good" activity, labor that has merit. One of the demands of a full schedule is that the activity be prioritized. Some things come high on the list; others must wait. Sometimes priorities have to be shuffled at the last minute to meet needs. The account of Martha and Mary is about such priorities, especially when the options are good ones.
This short passage is capable of being misread in a couple of ways (Alexander 1992:167-86). First, it is not about women; it is a passage on discipleship. Its point is not that women can get too easily caught up in the busy work of keeping the home. What is said to Martha about Mary would be equally true if Mary were male or even a child. The fact that two women dominate the story would have been shocking in the first-century context, where men often dismissed women as marginal, but the account is designed to make a point about all disciples. Second, the point is not that activity like Martha's is bad. The choice Jesus discusses with Martha is between something that is good and something that is better. Life is full of tough choices, and Jesus is stressing the relative merits of good activities here. For conscientious people, such choices are often the most difficult and anxiety-filled.
Martha receives Jesus at her home as he travels from one village to another. John 11:1, 18 and 12:1 tell us that this home was in Bethany, so Jesus appears to be a few miles outside Jerusalem when this encounter occurs. This is one of several meal scenes Luke will narrate. Besides the host and the teacher, the other protagonist is the host's sister, Mary, who sits at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. This is reminiscent of the Jewish saying in m. `Abot 1:4: "Let your house be a meeting house for the Sages and sit amidst the dust of their feet and drink in their words with thirst."
Just as the Samaritan's activity in the previous parable was surprising, so is this portrait of these women with Jesus. Why would a teacher spend time teaching only women? In the first-century culture the question would be inevitable. The fact that Jesus commends Mary and has a meal with Martha shows that Jesus is concerned about all people.
Martha is not comfortable with Mary's approach to Jesus' visit, since she could use another hand in the kitchen. She requests Jesus' aid: "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me." We know that Martha's viewpoint is questionable not only because of Jesus' reply but also because the text says she makes the comment while being distracted by all the preparations. In fact, in Greek she asks the question in such a way that the Lord is expected to give a positive answer (note the particle ou). The Lord does care, and Martha fully expects him to tell Mary to get up and help.
But as is often the case when Jesus is asked to settle a dispute, he refuses to side with the one who asks that things be decided in a particular way (compare Lk 12:13; Jn 8:4-7). Yet he responds tenderly and instructs in the process. The double address "Martha, Martha" indicates the presence of caring emotion, as such an address does elsewhere (6:46; 8:24; 13:34; 22:31). Jesus questions her not because of her activity but because of her attitude about it: "You are worried and upset about many things." By comparing what she is doing to what Mary is doing, she has injected unnecessary anxiety into the visit. "Only one thing is needed." With this remark Jesus sets priorities. "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
Jesus commends the hearing of the word at his feet. To take time out to relate to Jesus is important. The language of the passage recalls Deuteronomy 8:3 (Wall 1989:19-35). In a sense Mary is preparing to partake in the "right meal" (Deut 6:1-8). What she has done by sitting at Jesus' feet will remain with her. This meal will last. Jesus is not so much condemning Martha's activity as commending Mary's. He is saying that her priorities are in order. To disciples Jesus says, "Sit at my feet and devour my teaching. There is no more important meal."