A Tale of Two Sisters

Has anyone ever asked you, “Are you a Mary or a Martha?” Or “Which sister do you identify with?” It is a question often asked of women, with men being spared this comparison. I know I have, both in the past and when people hear I’m writing Martha’s story. The presumption behind the questions is that we can categorise women into two distinct roles. They present the two sisters in a flat, two-dimensional way.

Martha is the busy sister found in the kitchen, distracted and worrying about all she has to do. Resentful of her sister, who ignores her pleas for help. The busy one, always running around finding things to do.

Mary fulfils the role of the quiet sister sitting at Jesus’s feet, adoringly looking up into his face. She spends her time in private contemplation and prayer.

Martha and Mary’s story has long held a fascination for people. Their story being remembered and passed down until Luke wrote about them in his gospel some fifty or sixty years later. The family dynamics between the two sisters and their brother, Lazarus, and their relationship with Jesus has ensured their story’s longevity. It was after reading about Martha and thinking I would like to hear her story in her own words and realising no one had done so, that I decided it was time somebody did. My novel, Leaving Bethany, starts with Martha meeting Jesus for the first time and inviting him into her home for lunch.

Contrary Interpretations

The sister’s relationship with each other, their brother, and with Jesus, has led to all kinds of interpretations over the last two thousand years. Particularly on the role of women in society and the church. Jesus is seen as either freeing women to study and be his disciples or conversely to keep them in a place where they will cause less trouble.

In Medieval times, this story was used to put women into one of two categories. Martha is the sister who represented the active and working life of women and characterises most wives and mothers. But Mary was seen as the one who chose the superior way of life as a contemplative in a monastery or convent. Later interpretations emphasise the difference between salvation by works, illustrated by Martha, or salvation by faith, which Mary chose.

In the dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, women are assigned roles which are defined by their fertility or status. It is the low status, infertile women who become Marthas and serve in the households of the commanders. The Marthas are the hidden, unappreciated women who are not fit for anything but a life of service.

The hidden meaning behind the question of which sister do I identify with is, “Don’t be a Martha, she made the wrong choice.” In this interpretation, both women are a type, an abstract principle, a model for women’s behaviour, or a standard to aim for. It pits Martha against Mary, sister against sister, and woman against woman.

Two real women

In rediscovering and reimagining this story of Martha and Mary, I came to see them as real women and not simply two-dimensional figures or types. Both women have depth and real lives, they love and are loved in return. Martha did not stay in the kitchen, and Mary did not remain at Jesus’s feet.

Jesus meets with Martha four days after Lazarus’s death, when she is distraught and full of grief. Jesus tells her he is the source of life even in death and asks her to believe. Her response was to call him the Messiah and Son of God, and the only other person to come out with such an outrageous statement, within the Gospels, was Peter. Jesus engages with Martha on an intellectual and theological level and not only as of the one who cooks and serves him dinner. I based their relationship on more than Martha making him a good meal.

Where had she discovered this about him? In most modern English Bible translations, the usual wording of Luke 10:39 is that Mary sat at Jesus’s feet. In the original Greek, Luke uses the word “kai”, which can be translated as “also”. The King James and New King James Version say of Martha, “She had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’s feet, and heard his word.” Now, that little word changes things, doesn’t it? Mary also, and not exclusively, sat with Martha at Jesus’ feet. Martha did not come to understand Jesus from the kitchen, but by sitting and engaging with him.

If people talking Greek puts you off, please stay with me, I’m almost there. There is one more thing I would like to say, and it involves the Greek word, “diakonia”, often translated into English as ministry or service. It is the Greek word used to describe Martha’s serving of Jesus, and of the Seven men, often called deacons, who in Acts 6 are appointed by the apostles to support their ministry and “wait upon tables”. By the end of the first century, the word diakonia became associated with serving the Eucharist (bread and wine), proclaiming the gospel and church leadership. There is evidence that women still fulfilled those roles at least into the second century.

In Luke’s story, the diakonia, or service, of Martha is, at first glance, distinguished from the “listening to the word” of Mary into two separate roles. This could be seen as mirroring the ministry of the Seven, who waited on tables, whilst the Apostles preached the word. But it soon becomes clear that those appointed to wait on tables also proclaimed the word. As we see Stephen (or to use his Greek name, Stefanos, as I called him) doing in Leaving Bethany.

Practical service and ministry of the word are not separate but integrated. If we split them, as in the division of Martha and Mary’s roles, then we diminish, reduce and discredit the two women. When Martha proclaims Jesus is the Messiah, she shows that in her ministry the two are integrated. Both Martha and Mary served Jesus and also sat together at his feet.

So, the next time I am asked, “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” I can say both!

Johannes Vermeer 1665
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh
 Public domain

Martha did not stay in the kitchen, and Mary did not remain at Jesus’s feet.

Practical service and ministry of the word are not separate but integrated.

Susan Sutherland is the author of Leaving Bethany which was published in November 2020. She is currently working on a sequel.

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