what “lesson” we should emphasize
How many sermons have you heard about Martha being the busy sister and Mary making the better choice to sit and ‘just be’ with Jesus?
“The Lord answered and said to her `Martha, Martha, you are worried about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken from her.”Luke 10:41-42
Many teachers/preachers tend to focus on Mary choosing the better thing — she was “listening to the Lord’s words, seated at His feet.” (Luke 10:39). They emphasize the relational aspect of making Jesus our first priority. That is absolutely true! Our main purpose in life is to love God, which means spending time with Him by praying, reading and obeying His word.
But there was something else major going on in Martha’s house… something that isn’t typically the focus in teaching of this passage. I notice something different in this verse, probably because I’m a woman teacher that has been challenged by men as to whether or not I have a Biblical right to teach where men are present.
And here’s the major cultural shift not taught often — that by sitting at Jesus’ feet, who was a Rabbi in that Jewish culture, Christ was recognizing Mary as His student; a major shift in a traditional, cultural norm where women were not typically educated.
New Testament Scholar, N.T. Wright says that, “Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet in the male part of the house, rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women.”
Wright thinks that what was really bugging Martha the most was that Mary had “cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions.” He goes on to say that when Mary sat of the Master’s feet, this phrase doesn’t mean what it would mean today. To sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a “student,” and picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning.
When a student was learning, it was a given that you would not be learning just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to become yourself a teacher, a rabbi, Wright states. He goes on to say that he doubts if any 1stcentury reader would have missed the point. This is why Wright believes we find so many women in positions of leadership, initiative and responsibility in the early church. (See Romans chapter 16 for a list of names that include many women.)
All these years of teaching that the busyness of Martha is not the example to follow has missed another major point — that Mary was being allowed to sit and learn at the feet of her Rabbi — to be educated so she could go out and also educate others! That was a huge shift towards women being given more opportunity in that ancient culture.
This is just one of many verses in the New Testament that I hold onto when I am accused of being anti-Biblical for teaching in mixed company. I also frequently fall back to the fact that Jesus first showed His resurrected self to women. When women were not even considered reliable witnesses in the ancient courts of law, Jesus allows them to ‘witness’ the greatest miracle of all! And if an apostle was named so for being a witness to the Resurrection, Wright says, “there were women who deserved that title before any of the men.”
Now, I am not writing this blog to flaunt some feminist’ ideology. Instead, I believe men and women are designed by God to work together as a unified whole to further the kingdom of God. What I am attempting to show is that the very important position of Mary sitting at the Master’s feet is often overlooked. That’s understandable if you’ve never been questioned about your calling or have been told to “go home.”
But for me? This is huge! This is Jesus’ stamp of approval on women and on what I believe He has called me to do – to sit and learn at His feet, and then to go out and teach what I’ve learned to whoever wants to listen.
So, next time you hear about Mary making the better choice over her busy sister Martha, realize that Jesus was also designating Mary as His student—to sit at His feet was an honored position, something previously only allowed to men.
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture, New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2014, pg. 70.