Who is the rebel?

Or, perhaps, “Who are the rebels?”


Luke 10: 38-42 – Mary & Martha


17th June is not a ‘saints day’ – but is allocated to Dame Henrietta Octavia Weston Barnett, DBE (née Rowland; 4 May 1851 – 10 June 1936), She was a notable English social reformer, educationist, and author. She and her husband, Samuel Augustus Barnett, founded the first “University Settlement” at Toynbee Hall (in the East End of London) in 1884; o mean achievement for a mid-nineteenth century woman.
100 years ago in 1918 women were granted the right to vote in the UK and to become MPs.

What has this got to do with the Bible, Jesus, Mary and Martha – we shall see!

There are only three references to this particular Martha and Mary, this one in Luke, the raising of Lazarus (their brother) in John 11 and the ‘Mary perfume incident’ in John 12.

This is a very odd household in that it is Martha’s house but her sister, Mary, and Lazarus both live there. Hebrew names are often symbolic and/or prophetic and Marta (Martha) is the feminine form of ‘master’ in Aramaic and thus means ‘mistress or lady of the house’, as indeed she is.

There is no mention of husbands of either Mary or Martha, nor of a wife of Lazarus, nor do we know how the house ended up being Martha’s rather than that of Lazarus, her brother, which would be the normal expectation of inheritance if it were previously their father’s. Maybe Mary and Martha are widows and the house was previously that of Martha’s husband. We just do not know.

We know that Jesus is preaching in Judea and Martha’s house is in Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, and a very convenient base for this. Clearly Martha and Mary (and Lazarus) know Jesus well.

We do not know where Lazarus is, but he does not seem to be in the house; only Martha and Mary. Jesus is ‘on the way’ with the disciples but it is only Jesus who goes into the house in the story.

Now we have to remove ourselves from the culture of 2018 UK and get into our Time Machine and take ourselves back to Judea nearly 2,000 years earlier; here is a house in which there are two (now) unmarried women and visiting them is a famous Rabbi; Jesus on his own. This is not just unusual in this culture, it is actually quite shocking!

Now if we keep our first-century-Judean cultural glasses on, we come to some things which are even more shocking; Martha clearly thinks that Jesus should have a really good meal but instead of helping her in the kitchen area (which was the women’s domain), Mary goes into what would have been the ‘male-only’ part of the house – where Jesus is.

It now gets worse;
Mary does not help Martha prepare the meal in the woman’s kitchen part of the house but “sits at Jesus’s feet” We need to understand that this is a special phrase which meant that Jesus was teaching her scripture, as would normally only be done for a man not a woman. We can perhaps connect this with her name which in Hebrew is Miriam and although the origin of this is not known for certain, there are several theories including a derivation from the Hebrew for rebelliousness (‘maridanoth’);
Martha is very annoyed; undoubtedly because she is having to do all the work but also because her sister is breaking all the social norms.
She goes to Jesus and tells him

Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!
verse 40

This shows how good the relationship must have been for her to be able to address Jesus in this way.

Jesus, though states to Martha,

you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.

So Jesus is saying that, in this case, providing an elaborate meal for him was not the priority – but learning from him was.

There is a joke in the original Greek which states that Mary has chosen the better portion using the word for portion of food so Jesus is being kind and humorous whilst making the point.

What are we to make of this?

Irrespective of whatever the church did later, Jesus at this point is making it quite clear that the learning of scripture so that such knowledge can be passed on is not to be the preserve of men only; women are also to be involved.

God is not constrained by the cultural structures we make; whether in the 1st century in Judea or the 21st century in the UK.

There is a time and place for different ways of service – but learning from Jesus is more important than any social norms and more important than elaborate meals.

We should not assume from this passage, however, that Mary is the super-spiritual one and Martha is only interested in the more down to earth things. In John 11, when their brother Lazarus has died, it is Martha who comes and discusses resurrection with Jesus, whilst Mary is still back at the house.

20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at homme…
24 Martha answered, I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day….

So from this short story of this rather strange (in 1st century Judean terms) household and these two sisters we can learn quite a lot.

What might we do in a similar situation? Would we be doing what was expected of us culturally like Martha? Or would we rebel like Mary and throw caution to the wind to learn more about Jesus and God?

Whilst none of us are Jesus, if we have the opportunity to teach the Gospel as ordinary human teachers do we work to rules as to who we can teach and what they can do with that teaching or are we pleased to pass on our knowledge irrespective?

Our culture is different and we are not encouraged to talk about our belief in God, Jesus and scripture with others who are not believers. So do we keep silent? This is not easy. We do not wish to antagonise people so that they are turned off. We need to discern when it is right to speak and what to say but we should not be afraid and justify our lack of speaking because of culture.

This is mainly addressed to us men; do we actually believe that only men should do teaching whilst women are elsewhere preparing meals etc. This was the Jewish belief before Jesus’ time and for many years the belief in our culture but was Jesus here teachings something very different?

Now something addressed to the ladies, what would you have done in that house in Judea 2000 years ago?
Would you have acted like Martha or like Mary? Today in the UK should you be more like Martha or more lime Mary or is it much more complex than that?


Thank you Lord God that (whether) as a man or a woman we are free to learn about you; to read your word; to both learn and to teach your truths.
Give us discernment so that we can use our time to most effectively pass on the Good News about You and Your Kingdom to those who have not yet discovered all that that means, and also to support others doing the same.
Whether we are women or men, do not let us be hindered in doing so because of culture or nervousness but give us the strength to be bold in all that we do for Your Kingdom.

Gordon MackleyPosted on Monday, 18th June, 2018 by Gordon Mackley (based on his talk in church on Sunday evening 17th June).

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