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.

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

Part Three: Ministry Matters

In his CBQ article, Warren Carter seeks to “get Martha out of the kitchen.” The article has lots to say about our text. I’ll try to hit the high points in this post. But I would encourage preachers to read it if time permits. And I would note that this article, like many that I have pursued regarding the Lukan account, came to my attention in the footnotes of Levine and Witherington’s fine commentary.

Carter argues that this text “not only evidences the women’s leadership but also instructs the gospel’s readers and hearers about important tasks of leadership and ministry. That two women supply the focus,” Carter adds, “is not insignificant for the larger agenda of evaluating Luke’s presentation of women” (page 265). He does not read the text as concerning too-busy Christians, as elevating liturgical over diaconal ministry (or, I suspect, contemplation over action), or the value of educating women in the faith, or with seeking to make the leadership of women in the faith community invisible.

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Instead, Carter – following on work in 1990 by Mary Rose D’Angelo – sees Martha and Mary as missionary partners. We’ve seen this partnering both in the call of the Twelve and the sending of the Seventy-Two earlier in the Lukan account. Our text is, in part, about working through the dynamics and priorities of that partnership, a concern that clearly faced the Lukan community.

First, Carter seeks to “get Martha out of the kitchen.” He urges us to see our text relating closely to the larger Lukan travel narrative. He notes that verse 38 shares several words that are important in that larger narrative: “go,” and “enter,” and “village”. In addition, Martha “receives” Jesus just as the Seventy-two were to be “received” by households on their missionary journey.

“Martha appears in v. 38 as an embodiment of the positive responses named through chap. 10,” Carter observes (page 267). The verb for “received,” when used elsewhere in Luke 10 “expresses an openness to the word and work of God,” Carter continues. Martha “appears as a model disciple,” he argues, “in contrast to those in the previous verses who do not receive Jesus’ messengers (9:52-53; 10:10)” (page 268). In addition, Mary “receives” Jesus by listening to rather than rejecting Jesus. They are, according to Carter (and D’Angelo before him) “partners” in their receiving. The text is about working out the priorities and practice of that “receiving.”

But Martha was “distracted due to much serving” (verse 40, my translation). The verb shows up only once in the New Testament. It has the sense of being “carved away” from a task or focus. The word is a compound of a preposition and a verb. The root verb means to draw a sword. Thus, perhaps you can see my rendering of being “carved away from.” Carter argues that the distractions are not kitchen tasks. Instead, Carter argues that her distraction should be seen in the context of Jesus’ eschatological mission. He proposes that her distraction due to much serving “pertains to this mission and community and her particular role in them” (page 269).

Carter examines the meaning of the word for “serving,” the Greek term diakonia. The word and its cognates do not refer to menial service and waiting tables. Instead, the word group most often refers to someone commissioned to act on behalf of another as an agent. Carter notes that the word is used eight times in Luke-Acts “in contexts that concern not kitchen activity but participation with others in leadership and ministry on behalf of the Christian community” (page 270).

“Rather than designating a person of inferior status involved in table waiting or domestic service,” Carter summarizes, “diakonos in Luke’s usage typically designates a commissioned spokesperson or agent, a ‘go-between’ who ministers on behalf of God or the Christian community” (page 272). Therefore, Martha is not distracted by kitchen duties. Instead, she functions (at least by analogy) as a leader of a house church, perhaps in partnership with Mary. I would point to the leadership roles of Euodia and Syntyche, mentioned in Philippians 4:2, as an example of such a women’s partnership in local church leadership.

Carter argues on this basis that Martha’s distraction “arises, then, from difficulties in her partnership with Mary as a leader…Specifically, her complaint is that Mary has left her to minister alone,” Carter continues, “Martha’s prayer to the Lord is the request of a disciple for the Lord’s intervention to secure her sister’s active participation in their partnership of ministry” (page 275).

The importance of this issue of ministry partnership, Carter asserts, cannot be overstated when reading Luke-Acts. This is how ministry is to be done in the Lukan community, as we’ve seen in the earlier commissioning accounts. “One of the functions of this pericope, then,” Carter writes, “is to reinforce the gospel audience’s understanding of ministry and leadership as an act of partnership. As much as ministry or brokerage is commissioned for the service of another,” he concludes, “it is carried out with others, as an act of partnership” (page 276).

How does Jesus respond to this pressing leadership concern? First, abandon the anxiety. We will continue to meet this theme throughout the next several weeks of lectionary selections. The way to abandon that anxiety, Carter argues, is for Martha to join Mary in focused attention on Jesus’ words. Jesus’ word to Martha “is not a rebuke but the answer to her prayer concerning her distraction…” (page 277).

As we’ve noted previously, this is not the elevation of one “leadership style” over another. Instead, Carter notes that the Lukan model is “both-and” rather than “either-or.” The Lukan account shows several examples of alternating between prayer and practice, between listening and doing. Doing must be nurtured by listening. Listening must be embodied by doing. Doing alone can lead to illusions of self-sufficiency and messiah complexes. Listening alone can withdraw one from the actual work of Kin(g)dom of God. “Both Martha and Mary,” Carter argues, “threaten the partnership in ministry, though they do so in different ways” (page 279).

Carter offers several conclusions. Our passage “celebrates and affirms Martha’s and Mary’s ministry rather than rendering them silent and invisible.” It offers instruction on how this partnership is supposed to work. Separation, competition, and comparison damage the partnership and thus the ministry. That is true, regardless of the genders of the leaders. It is always noteworthy that the Lukan author uses two women as the characters through whom this issue is addressed.

Levine and Witherington point out that Jesus does not mediate or settle this dispute. We don’t hear how the argument worked out in the end. Jesus gives some critique rooted in a principle – that listening to him is the sustaining source of discipleship doing. But he doesn’t intervene in the details or the resolution. They note the same approach in Luke 12:13, when Jesus refuses to settle a family property dispute for the conflictors. I would suggest that Paul adopts the same stance in dealing with Euodia and Syntyche in his letter to the Philippian congregation.

“Jesus opens up the possibility of reconciliation,” Levine and Witherington write, “it is up to the estranged people to make the matter right” (299). If this is the case, then listening to Jesus provides the resources required for such reconciliation, if the conflicting parties are willing to act on that basis. I think about Paul’s encouragement in Philippians to be of one mind, which is “the mind of Christ” (see Philippians 2:1-11).

As Carter reads our text, the Lukan author sees ministry leadership as a joint enterprise rather than a solo venture. I think this is consistent with Paul’s continual focus on the koinonia, a word best translated as “partnership.” Both Paul and the Lukan author appeal regularly to this communal model of leadership for the sake of serving. Yet, in my experience, church leadership is often viewed as a solo venture. As a result, congregational pastors are often the loneliest people in a congregation.

I have found both my greatest ministry joys and greatest ministry sorrows in team ministry settings. When a ministry team is good together, mission and service are very, very good. When a ministry team is not good together, mission and service are awful. Yet, I have found the benefits of ministry partnership greatly outweigh the risks of the “awful.” The synergy and support of team ministry make the potential and actual sorrows worth the trouble.

Yet, we put ministry leaders on the front lines too often alone. Church members expect pastors to have all the answers and to bear all the responsibility. That dynamic leaves everyone damaged. Pastors seek informal partnerships with other colleagues, and those connections are worth their weight in ministerial gold. But the tensions of our competitive organizational culture often make those connections fraught and difficult to maintain.

In any event, perhaps this text is an opportunity to explore the importance of partnership in ministry in the congregation and beyond.

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. “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.

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

Part Two: Gender Matters

In his book, The Story Luke Tells, Justo Gonzalez devotes a chapter to “Luke and Gender.” He contributes to the large body of scholarship on the role of women in Luke-Acts. The Lukan author includes more references to women in the life of Jesus and the ministry of the Church than does any other New Testament writer. Whether that is a positive or a negative thing is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate.

Many scholars have noticed a particular structural reality in the Lukan account. The Lukan author tends to present male and female characters in paired texts, often in parallel to one another, a fact first observed, perhaps, by Constance Parvey. That structural reality can give us some interpretive help in understanding the text before us. One of the questions this observation raises for us is, who exactly is the Lukan author pairing with whom, and why?

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Gonzalez pairs the Samaritan man with Mary because they are both characters who do the unexpected. Therefore, as I noted in the previous post, this pair is identified as unlikely and yet authentic disciples. Gonzalez writes that “both passages show that these people, a Samaritan and a woman, whose ability to be true disciples and followers of the Law might be doubted, are the ones who really understand and practice what God wills for them” (page 49).

Mary Rose D’Angelo proposes a different pairing in her article. But before she does that, she offers a more general assessment of the Lukan author’s use of women’s stories in the gospel account. “On the one hand,” she writes, “the author of Luke does increase the number of stories about women in the Gospel, and the increase is a deliberate choice on the part of the author. On the other,” she continues, “the roles in which women appear are more restricted by what is acceptable to the convention of the imperial world than are the roles of women in Mark or John” (page 442).

D’Angelo argues that the Lukan author is walking a cultural and political tightrope in the author’s revision and updating of previous Gospel accounts. The Lukan account “offers to its women readers a wide variety of female role models who are the means at once of edification and control,” she writes. Women continue to become Jesus followers and need the instruction that such role models offer. Yet, the early Church may have been anxious about Christians being seen as “un-Roman” in their values and practices (see page 443).

I’m going to digress a bit, but I hope it won’t be wasted time. This waffling on women’s leadership in the early churches is a feature, I think, of those churches as Christianity becomes more visible and thus more of a potential threat to the Imperial administration and worldview. Many of us have this popular view of Christians in the arena, thrown to the lions as they shouted their allegiance to Jesus, prayed for their persecutors, and sang hymns amidst the flames. That happened, but not nearly as often as we might romantically think.

It’s not that persecution of Jesus followers didn’t exist. It certainly did. But it was more sporadic than systemic. I think about the letters from Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan in the second decade of the second century CE. Pliny was a Roman governor in Asia Minor. He was puzzled by these early Christians and unsure of how best to punish them for their apparent lack of devotion to the Imperial cult. His question was basically, “Should I kill them or do something else?” The answer was, “If that seems necessary, then do it. But try to find less bloody means first.”

My point is that the place of Jesus followers in the Roman community and polity was not clear in those early generations. One strategy of any colonized and oppressed population is to keep their heads down and try to be good citizens. We can see the beginnings of that approach already in Paul’s letter to the Romans. I think we see it clearly a generation later in the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians. The “household codes” in those letters represent a walking back of the liberation of the enslaved, of women, and of children which were likely a feature of first- and second-generation Christian communities.

I mention all of this in part because the second readings in the Revised Common Lectionary come, for a few weeks, from the Letter to the Colossians. I find it unfortunate but understandable that the Lectionary omits any reading from Colossians 4, a place where the “household code” language is explicit. I can understand the desire to keep preachers out of “trouble” in this way.

However, I think that omitting Colossians 4 from our schedule of readings is a sort of collusion with the “walking back” of liberation language for the enslaved, women, and children. When I have preached on Colossians texts, I have spent an entire summer going off the lectionary and preaching on the whole letter. In this way, I have hoped to meet chapter four head-on and refused to participant in suppressing these verses. I put this out here for consideration, at least.

Now, back to gender matters in our gospel reading. D’Angelo suggests that in some cases in the Lukan account, the pairing of man/woman stories is also connected to source material. The story about the male character is often found in the larger tradition. The story about the female character is often found only in the Lukan account. If we read the question from the lawyer as a Lukan variation on the scribe’s question to Jesus in Mark 12, then the man story comes from the larger tradition. There is no question that the Martha and Mary story comes from the Lukan author’s special source.

Therefore, the inclusion of woman stories in these pairs is not accidental or a repetition of the existing tradition. The Lukan author intentionally adds, for example, the Martha and Mary story to the existing accounts. But why? D’Angelo has noted the edifying use of these stories for women catechumens. She writes that “the women in Luke are especially important as examples that invite the numerous and important women in the congregation to act in response to the gospel. But,” she continues, “the roles that were offered to women in Luke-Acts present a very limited and conventional scope for their activity” (page 448).

D’Angelo argues that while the Markan account shows women in prophetic ministry, “when Luke names the women disciples [in chapter 8], their ministry seems to be limited to a ministry of charity” (page 453). Our text presents some particular challenges in understanding the Lukan perspective on women in ministry at the time of the Gospel composition. Mary certainly assumes the posture of a disciple as she sits at Jesus’ feet. However, she never speaks a word. Martha is engaged in the ministry of service (diakonia), and she speaks freely.

Thus, it’s not the case that Mary is a disciple and Martha is not. In fact, all the Greek manuscripts refer to Mary in Luke 10:39 (as D’Angelo notes) as the one who “also” sat at the feet of Jesus. This means that Martha is regarded as a disciple too. The NRSV does not include this more accurate translation and “demotes” Martha to a secondary status – at least in the minds of many preachers and readers. “Commentators as well as translators have found this wording puzzling,” D’Angelo writes, “but once it is recognized that sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing his word indicate discipleship, the meaning should be clear: Martha, who received Jesus has a sister who,” D’Angelo concludes, “like Martha herself, was a disciple” (page 454).

Thus, one the one hand, both Mary and Martha were regarded as disciples. That’s good for catechizing female converts. On the other hand, the women who get the highest marks from Jesus in the Lukan account are Mary and the repentant women in Luke 7, “neither of whom,” D’Angelo observes, “says anything at all…Women speak in the Gospel [of Luke],” D’Angelo concludes, “only to be corrected by Jesus” (page 452).

I’d like to think that controversies about women in ministry are limited to the acrimonious debates among American evangelicals about women as preachers, complementarianism, “biblical womanhood,” and so forth. I’d like to think that, and I’d be wrong. Gender continues to matter in my modestly progressive denomination and in many others. Issues concerning women in ministry may have been resolved in polity terms fifty years ago. But in many congregations, those issues have not been resolved at all.

It continues to be more difficult for women to get pastoral calls than it is for men. Women pastors in mainline denominations are still compensated on average less than men for the same work. Women pastors are still less likely to be called to lead pastor roles in large congregations or to be elected as synodical bishops. There has been progress in all these areas, but the “propriety” of women in ministry leadership –especially as pastors and preachers – continues to be contested in some places.

At the very least, we preachers dare not set the two women in the story against each other. Rather, we have the opportunity to celebrate the leadership of women in all areas of pastoral and congregational ministry. Mary may have chosen the more important starting place, in listening to Jesus. But that’s not an invitation to denigrate Martha and collaborate in the silencing of Mary.

Sometimes the text invites us to make corrections, based on data in the text itself. I think this is one of those times. “Luke may have reckoned without the subversive potential,” D’Angelo concludes, “of telling women stories of themselves” (page 461).

References and Resources

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

Text Study for Luke 10 38 to 42 (Part One)

Part One: Context Matters

Justo Gonzalez, in his commentary, titles Luke 10:25-42, “An Unexpected Order of Things.” It’s a clever word play. This section of Luke provides an unexpected turn in the narrative. And responses to Jesus come from unexpected people.

He notes that the Parable of the Man Who Fell Among Robbers and the story of Martha and Mary are usually treated separately. He suggests that when we preachers want more good works, we hit the Samaritan story. When we want more prayer, we emphasize Martha and Mary. “If we preach on both,” he writes, “we try to keep them as far apart as possible, so that neither the congregation nor we ourselves will see the contrast between the teaching we draw from each. Yet,” he exclaims, “in the Gospel the two appear back-to-back!” (Kindle Location 2620).

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Gonzalez and many others suggest that this placement of texts is worth some consideration in our interpretation. In narrative terms alone, something odd happens here. “Wasn’t Martha being the good Samaritan?” Gonzalez asks. “If the point of the parable is that one should go and serve those in need, Martha is certainly doing that better than Mary” (Kindle Location 2675).

Mary seems to put “religious practice” ahead of practical service, Gonzalez suggests. If, in narrative terms, Martha heard the parable, she would be justified in being confused and angry at Jesus’ words to her. Therefore, Gonzalez concludes, “The juxtaposition of these two passages warns us that the first is not merely a piece of generally good advice about the importance of serving those in need, and that the second is not merely a pious reminder that the life of study and devotion is important” (Kindle Location, 2679).

The key that turns the hermeneutical lock here, Gonzalez argues, is the Lukan emphasis on radical obedience to Jesus, if one is to be a disciple. “The parable of the Good Samaritan calls for a radical obedience that breaks cultural, ethnic, and theological barriers,” Gonzalez writes, “The story of Mary and Martha is equally radical” (Kindle Location 2683). Jesus violates hospitality norms by publicly rebuking Martha, his host. Mary violates gender and family norms by sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening.

“Like so much else in the Gospel of Luke,” Gonzalez concludes, “these two passages point to the radical obedience, and to the upsetting and even reversal of roles, that the kingdom demands” (Kindle Location 2688).

John Kilgallen wonders about the placement of the Martha and Mary story at this point in the narrative – and the geography. If Martha’s home is in Bethany, this story would fit much better near the end of the Lukan travel narrative rather than near the beginning. Commentators observe that the story is noticeably vague regarding the specific village Jesus enters and the time at which this story happened. “As they were going, he entered into a certain village…” (Luke 10:38a, my translation).

It would seem that the Lukan author wishes the reader to ignore any details of time or geography for the moment. “Luke does follow correct topography when he wants to,” Kilgallen writes, “for instance, he places stories having to do with Jericho correctly just before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem” (page 554). These factors suggest, Kilgallen argues, “that Luke has intentionally displaced the story of Martha and Mary; he wants the story now in Chapter 10, and not any other place” (page 554).

Along with Kilgallen, then, we can wonder why here? He suggests that the Martha and Mary story makes a specific point in the Lukan narrative. The “better portion” is listening to the Lord. Kilgallen points to the other end of the parable context, Luke 10:23. Kings and prophets have not seen and heard what the disciples now get to see and hear. Mary is hearing the Lord and illustrates this beatitude from Luke 10:22-23. The point is emphasized by the use of the verb for hearing in 10:23 and 10:39.

This seems a bit of an interpretive stretch, but I think it’s worth pursuing. “Jesus’ clarity about the kind of person one is to love is startling,” Kilgallen writes, “is it so unique among Jesus’ revelations of the mind of his Father that it deserves to be introduced and completed by emphasis upon attentive listening to the Lord, who has no parallel in his knowledge of the Father?” (page 558).

In other words, the call to regard and treat the hated enemy as beloved neighbor is so strange and dissonant and offensive to our ears that we may miss it or (more than likely) dismiss it. This is the liability of sermons on the parable which resolve into simple moralism. We’re tempted to preach on the preceding parable with an almost total emphasis on the “Go and do likewise” with very little attention to just how weirdly nauseating that command is – if we’re really listening.

While the Lukan Travel Narrative begins, probably, at Luke 9:51, its prelude is the Transfiguration account just a few verses earlier. Remember how the Transfiguration story ends. “And there was a voice out from the clouds, saying, ‘This one is my Son, the Chosen One – listen to him!” (Luke 9:35, my translation). Yes, it’s the same verb. And this remembering reinforces Kilgallen’s case.

Let’s go back a little further in the Lukan account for further development. The Lukan Sermon on the Plain ends with the Parable of the Two Foundations in Luke 6:46-49. The purpose of that parable is to show what someone is like who hears (same verb) Jesus’ words and acts on them. That one has built on a firm foundation. The one who hears and does not act has built on a ruinous foundation. Again, in Kilgallen’s brief note, he doesn’t make this connection, but it adds to the case.

According to Kilgallen, the Lukan author uses the Martha and Mary story to re-balance the impact of the Parable of the Man Who Fell Among Robbers. The Samaritan could be responding to the emotion of compassion alone. So, he was a good guy, and that’s the end of the story. But that won’t do in the Lukan account. The author follows up with this “listening” story to emphasize that it is Jesus’ teaching, his word, “that governs moral action” (page 560). Listen and then do – not one or the other.

“Luke wants Theophilus to pay supreme attention to the unique teaching of Jesus about love of neighbor,” Kilgallen argues, “for it is nothing other than the revelation of the mind of the Father, a revelation withheld till now from ‘prophets and kings’” (page 560). The teaching in the parable is so utterly shocking that, without disciplined attention, we will not only miss it but will likely make it into something it is not – a simple morality tale that anyone with half a brain should be able to comprehend.

It’s too easy to turn Martha and Mary (and the Samaritan, for that matter) into archetypes or stereotypes. I’ve heard (and preached) some version of that sermon where Mary’s “contemplative” stance is superior to Martha’s “activist” stance. I know I’ve done just what Gonzalez describes earlier in this post. That wooden binary does not listen to the text. Nor does it serve either text or neighbor.

The question really isn’t which performative stance is “better” or “more necessary.” Instead, the question is, “Who ‘gets’ Jesus?” Apparently, it’s not the lawyer, well-schooled in text and argumentation. Nor, is it Martha, the independent woman, home-owner, and pillar of the community. It’s the Samaritan. And it’s the younger sister. Jesus does not reveal the Word to the “wise and intelligent” but rather to the “infants” (Luke 10:21). They are the ones who hear and do.

I have always felt privileged to walk with other Christians in Bible study and meditation. One of the biggest thrills I get in that walk is when someone in the class comes to a new insight – either for that one personally, or for all of us in the class. There’s nothing more exciting than watching as a careful reader of the Word “connects the dots” in some new and interesting way. I get some of my most interesting new readings and perspectives in just such conversations.

Most often these natural theologians protest that they know little or nothing about the Bible. They say over and over that they are “just there to learn.” That may be true. But it is that “beginner’s mind” which is often most open to the illuminating and transforming power of the Word. The more often I can be a broker for such encounters between the Word and sincere listeners, the more often I get to see remarkable growth in grace and the fruit of the Spirit in action.

I don’t think the Lukan author wishes to elevate listening above doing. But I do think the Lukan author worries about Christians who have gotten into the habit of doing for the sake of doing, no longer informed by a deep listening to the Word. It may well be that our text is a corrective plea for both elements of our discipled life, and in the proper order.

References and Resources

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

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.