Mary and Martha: What We Misunderstand as Women

Mary and Martha

The Mary and Martha paradigm precipitated a landslide of books that subtly or not so subtly shamed women who worryabout everything they need to get done. I don’t know about you, but I know that whenever I think of Martha, I get the impression Jesus disapproved. I can’t help but identify with Martha sometimes because, well, I get busy. Even my prayer times consists of lists. And part of me wants to tell Mary to get off her tush and help Martha out.

Then my 21st-century mentality rises to the surface and thinks, Why aren’t the men helping out? My basic issue with the current Mary and Martha paradigm as communicated by women to women is that condemnation is present. Sure, many women writers exhort us to study like Mary and pursue Jesus like she did. But still, the underlying theme is that Martha is messing up by serving Jesus and disciples. I daresay that this interpretation has caused a tremendous amount of self-recrimination in women.

But two revelations are missing in the way we look at the Mary and Martha scenario.

It isn’t all about Mary

The first is that Jesus really loved Martha. In John 11:5, John observes that Jesus really loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. Wow. I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten the impression that if Jesus had to choose, it would be Mary every time. But in this verse, John doesn’t even mention Mary’s name. Instead, it is Jesus’ affection for Martha that is front and center.

Mary and MarthaThis changes things for me. The scene in Luke 10:41 takes on a different flavor for me. Instead of the instant condemnation, I usually read in that passage, I see Jesus as much more empathetic. He sees the worry and cares that Martha has. He doesn’t even really tell her to stop. He says I see you, Martha. I see your worry and your toil. It matters to me that Jesus sees my worry and my toil. I raised six children. I have seen both in abundant measure.

Then the real Mary and Martha revelation

Jesus is issuing a revolutionary invitation to Martha. Mary is doing something women just didn’t do back then. She was studying scripture and soaking in the presence of Jesus. This is feminism at its purest! Martha is stuck in the kitchen and wants Mary to be there with her because that is what women did. Who am I kidding? That is what women still do.

Jesus is inviting Martha into a whole new revelatory identity. No longer does she have to be a kitchen drudge. She can sit with the men and do the stuff that is really soul-enriching. The culture of the day simply did not allow for women to pursue spiritual and intellectual callings. When Paul tells the women in the church to be quiet, we ought not to insist that women shut their mouths. Instead, we should ponder the reality of an ancient culture in which women were kept too ignorant to have much to say. And then we should ponder the fact that Jesus’ protected Mary’s calling outside of the usual female roles.

Mary precedes the disciples in evangelism

And to crown it all, Mary is the first real evangelist, proclaiming the risen Christ. In those times, women’s testimony amounted to half of a man’s in a court of law. Basically, a woman’s word was worth less than a man’s. Yet here, the divine will has a woman discovering the resurrection first. If the writers of the New Testament were trying to fabricate a story that would be taken seriously, the first thing they would do is have a man discover the empty tomb. Who would believe the word of an ignorant woman?

I read a post recently by a woman who had just gotten her PhD in theology. She cautioned people against reading the plethora of female Christian bloggers because after all, they didn’t have a formal education in theology. To that, I say, phooey. I love the fact that so many womenMary and Martha have joined the chorus of Christian writers. Most women bloggers I know are very careful and wise regarding their theology. Who is she to decide who should and should not participate in the spreading of God’s Word? And the bloggers I know are rocking it as both Mary’s and Martha’s. Because Jesus really loved Martha. Not just Mary.

Beware of division

The enemy always seeks to divide. When we, as women, prone to shame as we are, read into the Mary and Martha story, the preferences of Jesus, we start to split our own souls. Sometimes I really need to be a Martha, if we must categorize. I need to create an orderly home and put dinner on the table. Do I think these things are eternally useful? Yes. Sometimes.

But I get to be a Mary too. I get to sit at Jesus’ feet and soak in His presence. In fact, being a Mary helps me be a better Martha. Studying the Bible, listening to worship music, and earnestly engaging in prayer means that everything I do, in whichever category you prefer, is guided by the Holy Spirit. Why do I have to choose between these two women? I am both and I am neither.

I have no warnings to issue or corrections to give out to all the women out there. Instead, I just want to say that Jesus really loves you and thinks you are pretty awesome. When He made you, He looked at you and said, I made her like me! And when He died for you, His motivation was Now she can be with me for eternity! If you are divided into your Mary self and your Martha self, maybe it’s time to let Mary and Martha sort things out for themselves. Live from your true self, not from the false divisions with which our minds want to saddle us.


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13 Replies to “Mary and Martha: What We Misunderstand as Women”

  1. There are days when I am more like Martha and days when I am more like Mary. A combination of both some days. 🙂

  2. I love listening to worship music while I’m cleaning or preparing dinner, cause then I get to rest in God’s presence while also keeping on top of things 🙂

  3. Yes,so much yes!
    God wants us to have a Mary heart, but to serve just like Martha too! We need to be a balance of both to truly live out the call of Christ!

  4. I love your post. I think having balance is key. Some days I am like Martha- serving, and other days like Mary- soaking and being refreshed at Jesus’ feet. 💕

  5. I love your take on this! Martha was dearly loved and Jesus was such a feminist. I learned a lot from a story I’ve read dozens of times. Thanks for the fresh perspective! I shared this with my readers as well!

  6. Love the line, “in fact, being a Mary helps me be a better Martha.” So funny that I also used the Martha analogy in my latest blog and how we as Christian women struggle with the meanings behind that story. Loved your insight on this topic!

  7. Wow SO good!! This is a topic that should be talked about more. We totally need a little bit of both x

  8. Not being a feminist, I kind of look at it a little bit differently. I think a lot of what you said he was really interesting and I have always liked the fact that Jesus was making a point of allowing a woman to study theology. However, I don’t think it’s just that being a Mary makes you a better Martha. Being a Martha makes you a better Mary as well. Everything we do, including housework and drudgery, should be the glory of God and by fulfilling our roles that God has given us we can draw closer to him. Just another perspective to go along with the ones you have offered. 🙂

  9. Rachel Mayew says: Reply

    Yes! God created us in his image. He worked and he rested. There is a definite balance to be found, but each part is important. Thanks for pointing out Jesus’ support of Mary as she pushed the boundaries. I had never connected those dots, though I’ve heard it said that Jesus was the first feminist & the first civil rights leader. I recently heard a speaker, wish I could remember who, say that attending church was new to women. Since they’d not been included in education or organized meetings, it was her belief that Paul was simply letting them know the rules. We’re quiet and actively listening as the speaker speaks. All interesting takes, and I love the conversation!

  10. susanhomeschooling says: Reply

    “…the underlying theme is that Martha is messing up by serving Jesus and disciples.” We are called to DO for Jesus as well as BE. Jesus has a lot of commands that involve action.

  11. hisdearlyloveddaughter says: Reply

    Oh, Alice, this is one of my favorite things you’ve written! (And that’s saying a lot!) So encouraging. I love your fresh perspective on this all too familiar story. I’m really struggling to pick a quote to pull out when I share this on Facebook, there are so many good ones.

  12. Awesome post Alice! It is for sure a God thing that our paths have crossed. I am a Mama of 7 and I remember the days of telling God it was impossible for me to be a Mary, that my children demanded that I be Martha 24/7. He’s taught me a thing or two over the years 😉 and I’ve learned that if I’m going to be the best Martha I can be in serving Him and my family, then I need to make being a Mary a priority too! Thank you for this!

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