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Taking Away the Good Part – A Thought on Women’s Roles

Now as they were traveling along, He entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38–42

Jesus was traveling with his inner circle of disciples. Martha, who was gracious to let Jesus into her home, was busy with preparations while her sister Mary did the unprecedented: she sat at the feet of Jesus to learn from his teaching. 

Craig Keener observes, “Mary’s posture and eagerness to absorb Jesus’ teaching at the expense of a more traditional womanly role (10:40) would have shocked most Jewish men.”

François Bovon further clarifies, “Judaism allowed and even required faith and religious obedience on the part of women. But did it permit them to study with the teachers of the law? This possibility, which is less unlikely than has been believed, must, however, have been the exception rather than the rule. Jesus must have shocked his fellow Jews by the way he welcomed women into the inner circle of his disciples.”

Martha was busy serving (which is from the word “deacon” or “minister”). Martha’s physical service, then, is contrasted with Mary who, by sitting at the feet of a Rabbi, hints at her spiritual service, which is the “good part” or “portion” addressed by Jesus. Mary and Martha, in a sense, foreshadow the two forms of servants in Acts 6: the one who serves by paying attention to the word and the one who serves tables. 

Luke, in anticipation of the declaration that both “sons and daughters” would prophesy, places Mary alongside Anna in Luke 2, the female travelers and financial backers in Luke 8, and the first witnesses and preachers of Jesus’s resurrection who were also women. 

Like Phoebe, who Paul called a deaconess (Romans 16:2), Euodia, and Syntche (fellow laborers with Paul in proclaiming the gospel, Philippians 4:2), Mary was training to be a servant and witness of Jesus. Yet, good Christians have taken situational prohibitions from Paul and applied them across the board to women of all ages. Despite Jesus’s words that Mary was doing the one thing that was truly necessary and that her portion would not be taken away, men have instead reversed the order that Jesus established, relegated women to a place of housekeeping, and stripped away the good part that is rightfully theirs. 

If my daughter chooses to follow me in ministry, I will not allow anyone to prohibit her from following in the footsteps of Mary. If she wishes to sit at the feet of Jesus and be a minister of the word, a deaconess, or a witness of Jesus, then I will not let traditions, misapplication of scripture, or prooftexting stand in her way. If she chooses the good part, and it is a choice, I will not take it away from her or any other Mary, Phoebe, or Anna. 

Sources

Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993. Print.

Bovon, François. Luke 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51–19:27. Ed. Helmut Koester. Trans. Donald S. Deer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. Print. Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible.

A special thanks is due to Brian McLaren who briefly mentioned this passage in a footnote in his latest book Do I Stay Christian? That footnote serves as the genesis of my thoughts here.

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