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.