"Two Sisters" by Henri Jean Guillaume Martin (1860-1943). by Henri Jean Guillaume Martin

Re-membering Martha and Mary as Disciples — Luke 10:38-42

KATHLEEN RUSHTON explains how the Martha and Mary story in Luke 10:38-42 highlights the necessity of ministry and prayer for discipleship.

The sisters Martha and Mary, friends of Jesus in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42), have been viewed too often as rivals. A critical reading shows this is not correct. We need to “re-member” them as Mary Rose D'Angelo suggests by “bringing what has been hidden out of the shadows of history, of putting together what has been dismembered and of making someone a member of oneself, of a community or the tradition in a new way.” In this interpretation, I place Martha and Mary’s story in the context of Luke’s Gospel and look at information found in the text to re-member them in their community. This enables us to re-member people in the Christian community today.

Context of a Journey

When Luke was writing between 80-90 CE, he is looking backward to the Jesus traditions and also forward to the present and future concerns of his communities. So he is shaping the Jesus story to address particular situations arising in local communities.

The section, Luke 9:51-19:48, is set as a journey which evokes Israel’s long exodus journey which formed them into a people. Throughout his own journey Jesus focuses on the formation of disciples. The story about Martha and Mary happens early “on the way to Jerusalem.” Jerusalem is the place of divine destiny but also the place where there is growing hostility to Jesus. And we find that the disciples, too, can behave in ways opposed to Jesus’s message.

Received Jesus into Her Household

Luke writes that Martha received/welcomed Jesus into her household (Lk 10:38). Jesus has been welcomed before by Simeon (Lk 2:28) and will be received again by Zacchaeus (Lk 19:6). This welcome is like receiving the Word as in the Parable of the Sower.

“Welcome” or “receive” suggests hospitality. It was a Christian ministry for local householders to give hospitality to the brothers and sisters travelling to spread the Gospel (Lk 9:5, 48; 10:8, 10; Acts 17:7). These Christian communities that met in households were often led by women (Acts 16:15).

“To Be Troubled”

Martha is described as “distracted” in the story (Lk 10:41). The word translated as “distracted” means to “be troubled” or “worried” over a public matter. It is found 11 times in the New Testament in the context of a disturbance made by a crowd or a conflict that has the whole community in an uproar. We might wonder why this term is used about Martha in response to what is commonly translated as “tasks (diakonia)” — “my sister has left me to do all the work (diakonēo) by myself”.

The key is in the words. We can think of Jesus saying: “I came not to be ministered (diakonēo) to but to minister (diakonēo)” which is most often translated as: “I came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Australian biblical scholar John Collins has delved into how diakonia (noun) and diakonēo (verb) were understood in the ancient world. He found they were associated with those who functioned as go-betweens with the gods and were not used in talk about so-called ordinary life. The Greek-speaking church adopted the daikon-words to describe ministry. The sense is of a person being delegated, sent on mission and being accountable to a community (e.g., 2 Cor. 8:4).

Both Prayer and Ministry

So, contrary to most interpretations, the Martha and Mary story is not about prayer versus action, nor about women’s lifestyle choices. It is about participation in ministry and prayer. Martha is a disciple in ministry, not just busy in the kitchen. Mary portrays prayer.

It is possible that Luke’s community was in an uproar because some members wanted to focus entirely on ministry while others only on prayer. By putting the sisters Martha and Mary story early in the journey Luke emphasises that for disciples “on the way” ministry and prayer are both essential.

Re-membering Today

The Church often has a limited understanding of diakonia. If the daikon-words are translated to convey only service — like Martha’s tasks performed in service — then we reduce the rich understanding of these words and we distinguish, with no scriptural justification, Martha’s “tasks” from the “ministry” of biblical men.

Re-membering empowers us today, to journey together “on the way” as we walk forwards towards a new future following in the footsteps of our sisters, the women of the early church who participated in ministry — Lydia (Acts 16:40), Nympha (Col 4:15), Phoebe, “a deacon (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrae” (Rom 16:1) and Prisca and her husband Aquila (Acts 18:24-28; I Cor 16:19).

Ministry of the Baptised

The synodal journey we are on now has returned us to Vatican II’s recovery of the priesthood of the baptised and the hope of finding new ways to live and engage in the Church — and for women particularly. It is time to acknowledge and transform the gulf between the ministerial priesthood of bishops and clergy and the baptismal priesthood of the people of God.

It was only in the 1930s that bible translations of the daikon-ministry words changed to “serve” or “serving” or “take care of.” For example, the Catholic Rheims New Testament (1582) and the King James Bible (1611) tell us that the healed mother-in-law of Peter “ministered unto them” (Mark 1:31) whereas the much later New Jerusalem Bible and New Revised Standard Version translate the verse as “she began to serve them”.

Ministry is not just the work of the ordained in the Church. In the Judgement of the Nations parable (Matthew 24:31-46), the two groups ask: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister (diakonēo) to you?” Every Christian is called to minister, to engage in the works of mercy, participating in the mission of God. This ministry is essential so that all will share in the abundance of God’s gifts and no one is left without the necessities for life.

Ministry is not to be co-opted by clericalism and hierarchical power. Ministry is about being delegated, sent on mission and being accountable to a community — ministering for common good of the world. Some have particular ministerial roles in the Church but they do not minister alone and they are to be accountable to the community. It is within the hospitality of the community that ministry and prayer are mutually supporting and nourishing.

Through engaging in prayer and ministry, we enter into re-membering, into community. It is how we engage in God’s mission of bringing together those who have been separated, of acknowledging as sisters and brothers those who are left out, invisible or ignored, and of respecting all people as equals.

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 272 July 2022: 24-25