Col 1.15-28, Luke 10.38-42
The rich man in his castle/ the poor man at his gate./God made them high or lowly/ and ordered their estate.
That’s a verse of “All things bright and beautiful” which you won’t now find in the hymn books – and just as well too. But when Mrs C.F. Alexander wrote it, it would have seemed an entirely normal sentiment. “Knowing your place” was considered to be a good thing. Early suggestions that the poor should be educated were widely resisted; it would just give them ideas above their station. Even when they were educated there was far more emphasis on reading than writing. They needed to read in order to read their Bibles, but writing – self-expression – was a dangerous tool, something they might use to make their voices heard. It’s hard for us to understand now, after a century or so of universal education and an emphasis on equality of opportunity, but that’s how people saw the world, with fixed positions, fixed destinies established from birth.
In today’s Gospel reading it isn’t social class which is determining the expectations of the people in it, but gender. The position of women in Jesus’ society was fairly strictly drawn. Women’s lots varied quite widely across the ancient world. Respectable Greek women lived more or less in seclusion. Roman women had more freedom. Women in what we would now call Turkey often ran businesses and had considerable independence. But women in ancient Judah, Samaria and Galilee lived lives that were among the most restricted of all in terms of their position outside the home. Within the home they had great influence and respect, but that was where they were expected to stay. In particular, they weren’t expected to have any opinions on religious matters. One Rabbi of the time famously said that it was better to burn the Law than teach it to a woman.
The story of Martha and Mary needs to be read against that sort of background. We often see it as about the tension between busyness and contemplation, but that’s not really the point at all. Martha is doing exactly what her society expects of her. She would be seen as a good role model, a perfect example of womanhood. Jesus and his disciples descend en masse on her house. She welcomes them and shows them hospitality, which has to have meant a great deal of work for her. Mary, however, instead of fulfilling the role that her society (and her sister) expects, sits down at Jesus’ feet and listens to what he was saying. It is a significant phrase because she takes up the classic position of a disciple to his master – one who was learning about the Law. We still talk about having “sat at the feet” of someone we admire as a way of saying that we have learned from them. This was what Jesus’ male disciples, and the disciples of any other spiritual teacher of the time, would have done. But women wouldn’t have been among them. Martha is not only tired, she is also probably deeply embarrassed. How could Mary shame the family by acting like this? It brings dishonour on them all.
But Jesus praises Mary. She has chosen the better part, the thing that is really essential, to listen to him and learn from him. It will not be taken away from her, he says, firmly. There is a message here not only for Martha, but also for those who first read the gospel of Luke. It is clear from some of the early writings of the church that some people found it difficult to accept the ministry of women on an equal footing to men, despite the fact that they clearly did take a very prominent part in spreading the Gospel, leading churches and teaching. Some things never change! But Luke points his hearers back to the way in which Jesus behaved, explicitly praising Mary for taking what was to Martha, and to her society generally, a role restricted to men.
It isn’t just an issue of male and female, however. This story invites us to reflect on the ways in which we restrict ourselves and others by our expectation that we or they should behave in a certain way because of their background, race, disability, and a host of other things. Sometimes it can be as simple as family tradition – “we don’t do that sort of thing in our family!” Jesus, though, sees not the label but the person. Whoever we are, the one thing we really need is to listen and to learn from him so that we can follow the unique path that he has for us, no matter how far it takes us from the expectations of our society.
In the silence tonight perhaps we could reflect on the social expectations which might have restricted our lives, and the ways in which we might restrict the lives of those around us too. Are we so busy trying to fit into the mould the world has for us that we can’t sit at Jesus feet? Or have we found the courage to focus on the “one thing only” which we need, the discipleship which Jesus calls us to?