Text Study for Luke 10:38-42 (Part Four)

Part Four: Text Matters

I find that one of the most challenging parts of our gospel reading this week is simply understanding the text as we have received it. English translations, including the NRSV, tend to obscure significant – if seemingly small – details that might either help with my understanding or provoke further questions and confusion. Either way, a closer inspection might be useful.

The NRSV uses the connective “Now” to move on from the story of the Man Who Fellow Among the Robbers. That may be fine, but it’s worth noting that the Greek connection is a mild adversative, “de.” Jesus tells the lawyer, in 10:37, “Go, and you do likewise.” The root of the verb for “go” here is poreuomai. The same verb is used eight words later in Luke 10:38. That should cause close readers to sit up and pay attention.

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There’s nothing remarkable about the verb itself. However, this close juxtaposition in a narrative as carefully worded and constructed as the Lukan account should not be ignored. In addition, the two instances of the verb are separated by the mild adversative. There may well be some contrast between the first “going” and the second “going.” The positioning of the two stories may indicate that there is an important difference between them.

Therefore, what we have is something like this. “But Jesus said to him, ‘Go and you do likewise.’ But as they were going, he himself entered a certain village; but a certain woman, Martha by name, welcomed him [into her house]. And this one was sister to one called Mary, [who] also, as she sat at the feet of Lord, listened to his word.” (Luke 10 37-39, my translation). The small details make some notable differences in how the text sounds and works, when compared with standard English translations.

As I’ve noted in an earlier post, it seems clear that Mary was not the only one who sat at the feet of the Lord and listened to his word. Mary “also” did it – presumably along with Martha. “But Martha [while she was sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his word] was distracted by much ministering; but since she was in charge [of the household], she said, ‘Lord, is it not a matter of concern to you that my sister left me to minister alone? Therefore, speak to her in order that she might come to help me” (Luke 10:40, my translation).

When I read the text closely, I get a somewhat different scene in mind than I have often imagined. Martha, as the head of the household (with no adult man in the immediate family, in the Lukan telling) welcomes Jesus appropriately as host. Both Martha and Mary sit at Jesus’ feet and hear his word. Martha, however, is in charge of the festivities and needs to attend to the arrangements. The word the NRSV translates as “she came to him” in verse 40 also has the sense of acting as overseer or being in charge. I’m surprised that this sense doesn’t show up in translations.

Martha wants to be in two places at once, but that can’t be. Making the final arrangements would go more quickly if Mary got up as well. But Mary doesn’t budge. I’d be put out as well if I were in Martha’s shoes. She asks Jesus to excuse them somewhat forcefully for their duties. After all, there will be more time for teaching during and after the meal. Instead, Jesus gently urges Martha to calm down and sit back down. The meal will be there when they’re ready for it.

“But replying, the Lord said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is necessary. For Mary has chosen for herself the best portion which will not be carved away from her’” (Luke 1041-42, my translation). I first notice the verbal similarity between the Greek word for “worry” here, merimnas, and the Greek word for “portion,” merida. You may know that I’m a fan of alliteration in my own writing and reading. So, this verbal similarity captures my attention. This oral/aural feature of the story may well be a clue to the contrast between Martha’s choice for herself to keep worrying and Mary’s choice for herself to keep listening.

In addition, it seems to me that the text contains a delightful play on words at this point. A “portion” can refer, obviously, to some food served at a meal. Could it be that Jesus is offering a pun to get Martha’s attention? “Yes, Martha, I’m all about the servings, here,” Jesus may be saying. “But the most important item on the menu is not the lamb in the oven. The best portion right now is a serving of my word. So, sit back down and take a second helping!”

In Luke 10:42, Jesus declares that Mary “chose the good portion.” Wallace (page 298) refers to this verse under the heading of a “positive for a superlative.” He notes that occasionally, for example, that which is “good” actually refers to that which is “best.” When the word for “good” comes in the attributive position (immediately following the Greek article), and the article is of the par excellence class (a grammatical category that, I think, may well be in the eye of the beholder), then the positive form (“good”) should be translated as the superlative form (“best”).

The Greek verb for “choose” in verse forty-two can be translated in the active voice as a middle deponent. The result is “Mary chose.” Or, it can be translated in the middle voice, the translation that Wallace regards as the more reliable. Therefore, the result is “Mary chose for herself.” Even though the verb is an aorist and is therefore a simple past tense, the context, at least in English, suggests more of a continuing past tense. The result, then, is “Mary has chosen for herself…”

My interest in the littlest words was piqued by John Kilgallen’s note on the use of gar (for) in Luke 10:42. The word doesn’t make it into the NRSV translation, and that troubles Kilgallen (and me). When it is used in a similar context in Acts 8:31, the word can indicate “an unexpressed denial or refusal,” to use Kilgallen’s words. What might that unexpressed denial or refusal be in our text?

Lord,” Martha asks, “is it not a matter of concern to you that my sister left me to minister alone?” The implication is that it certainly should matter to Jesus. And he ought to do something about the situation forthwith. When Jesus includes the gar in his reply in verse forty-two, he does not explicitly deny or refuse Martha’s request, Kilgallen notes. But he does give “the reason…why refusal should be understood as an element of his reply” (page 258). “I’m not going to do it, Martha,” Jesus says, “because Mary has chosen for herself the best selection on the menu.”

There are moments in the life of the faith community when the call is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” But there are also moments in the life of the faith community when the calls is, “Don’t just do something, sit there!” As we’ve observed before, the key is to know what to do when. When is the right time to speak and the right time to listen? When is the right time to step forward and the right time to sit back? The Samaritan knew the right time. Mary knew the right time. That’s what they have in common, even though their responses were different.

I think about the ongoing conversations we have in our antiracism book study group. This is a very important part of my week and has been for most of the last two years. Often when the group reads and discusses a passage that is especially challenging for White people, we may say to one another, “But what shall we do about it?” I have found that to be a natural question but not the most helpful one. If we don’t yet know what we personally need to do, perhaps we’ve not yet spent enough time sitting and listening.

And the move to doing assumes that we White people are the ones who could know what to do and when to do it. I wonder if one of the struggles for Martha was the leadership role reversal that Jesus affirmed. Mary was, presumably, the younger sister. At the least, she was not the one in charge of the household and the hospitality. Yet, Jesus allowed Mary to set the pace and to choose the portion. Perhaps it was Martha’s task to listen not only to Jesus but to Mary as well.

I can tell you, as an oldest, that’s a hard pill to swallow. I can transfer that experience to all the ways I’m accustomed to being in charge – White, male, pastor, older, credentialed, financially resourced, able-bodied, etc. My shoulders tighten and my jaw clenches, involuntarily most of the time, when others are in charge. I don’t really want to listen. I don’t really want to follow. I want to lead – as I am in the habit of doing.

But that’s not the best portion for me in many cases and situations. The best portion for me as a White, male, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, college-educated, English speaker is to listen to the words of those unlike me and to follow their leads. That’s the best portion. And it is the hardest helping to swallow for many of us in the once-dominant cultural positions that we feel slipping away from us.

Thus, we worry and are distracted by many things. Those worries can make us difficult and even violent. Perhaps one of the opportunities for witness in and through the Church is to model what it looks like to stop doing (if we’ve been in charge) and just sit there. After all, Martha, Mary can do things too.

References and Resources

CARTER, WARREN. “Getting Martha out of the Kitchen: Luke 10:38-42 Again.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58, no. 2 (1996): 264–80. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43724275.

D’Angelo, Mary Rose. “Women in Luke-Acts: A Redactional View.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109, no. 3 (1990): 441–61. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267051.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

González, Justo L. The Story Luke Tells. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.

Kilgallen, John J. “A Suggestion Regarding Gar in Luke 10,42.” Biblica 73, no. 2 (1992): 255–58. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42611252.

Kilgallen, John J. “Martha and Mary: Why at Luke 10,38-42?” Biblica 84, no. 4 (2003): 554–61. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614476.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

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