In addition to the translation we use and the pictures we’ve seen, our assumptions about a biblical text are shaped by the traditions we are part of and the interpretations we’ve heard.
It doesn’t seem too surprising that many people equate Luke’s Martha and Mary with John’s stories of the sisters of Lazarus living in Bethany, even though Lazarus doesn’t make an appearance in Luke and the village is not named. I was more surprised to learn that Catholic tradition links Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene.
Back in 591 AD Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon where he linked John’s story of Mary anointing Jesus to Luke’s story of an unnamed woman anointing Jesus. Gregory then went on to link Luke’s unnamed woman, who is forgiven for her many sins, with Mary Magdalene who Luke names in 8:2 as freed from seven demons. Gregory says these seven demons represent the seven vices, and so Mary Magdalene must have been the unnamed woman, who was a sinner and a prostitute, and as the woman doing the anointing in John is Mary of Bethany, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are one and the same, a prostitute saved from sin by Jesus.
This interpretation proved popular and strengthened through the following centuries. This is the understanding we encounter in the 14th century Middle English classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, for example.
In contrast, the early church and the subsequent eastern Orthodox church saw the two Marys as distinct from each other and from the unnamed woman. Mary Magdalene and Mary and Martha of Bethany are all holy myrrh-bearers, part of the women who watched as Jesus was laid in the tomb and then went home and prepared spices and ointments for his body, returning on the first day of the week to discover that body was gone.
Each gospel has a slightly different version of who went and what happened. Some are named: Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Joanna, Salome, Susanna. Others are unnamed. In Orthodox tradition, the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary of Bethany, were among the myrrh-bearers, as in the icon above.
Like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, named in Luke 8:2-3 as women who provided for Jesus and his disciples, Orthodox tradition considers Mary and Martha to be wealthy women – but neither Mary Magdalene nor Mary of Bethany is seen as a reformed prostitute.
Nor does Protestant tradition see Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany as one and the same. Given the centuries of Catholic thought on this, I don't know when the two got untangled. Perhaps it was as scholars began going back to the original manuscripts and translating the Bible into contemporary languages. Certainly some of the English commentaries mention early church commentaries, and both of these take on what we might name a "Martha Stewart" perspective. Martha is troubled and anxious because hospitality is a big deal and she is trying to put on a big, beautiful banquet, and she thinks Mary should be helping. We're back at the dishes again.
In Tessera 4, back before the flurry of May and June activities, I talked of the images we carry unawares when we work with a text like the story of Martha and Mary. We are influenced by past encounters with the story – art work and illustrations, the way a particular Sunday School teacher interpreted the story, sermons over the years.
It is difficult to meet the story afresh. We bring in assumptions that are not necessarily supported by the text. Those dishes I asked about, for example. When you think of Luke’s version of Martha and Mary’s interaction with Jesus, are dishes involved?
There are understandable reasons why they may be. We tend to blend our gospel stories. John has a story about Martha, Lazarus, and Mary (John 12:1-8) and a dinner they gave Jesus in Bethany, six days before his last Passover. Martha served, Lazarus was at the table, and Mary anointed Jesus’ feet. There’s a meal, there would naturally be dishes.
In Luke, there is no mention of a meal or dishes. We bring them in with our assumptions. Martha is welcoming him into her home and surely that means a meal, especially given middle Eastern ideas about hospitality, right? Or given that Martha is distracted by many tasks, that must be because she is trying to be impressive and prepare a banquet. Or more simply, given that she’s a woman and women’s work at that time had a lot to do with the kitchen and meal preparation, there must have been dishes.
Wait, you may well say. What do I mean, there is no mention of a meal? Look, it’s right here in the Bible. See? Luke mentions a meal.
Does he or doesn't he?
Here is another area where assumptions affect what we read, and they aren’t always the assumptions we carry. The translators of our various biblical versions carried their own assumptions and these can show up in how they chose to translate a few key phrases.
Look at these translations of verse 40:
But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. King James Version
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” New Revised Standard Version
But Martha was the jittery type and was worrying over the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Sir, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.” Living Bible
But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” New International Version
By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” Common English Bible
But Martha was pulled away by all she had to do in the kitchen. Later, she stepped in, interrupting them. “Master, don’t you care that my sister has abandoned the kitchen to me? Tell her to lend me a hand.” The Message
Now Martha, who was distracted with all the serving, came to him and said, 'Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please tell her to help me.' New Jerusalem Bible
Much serving, many tasks, the big dinner she was preparing, preparations, getting everything ready for their meal, all she had to do in the kitchen, all the serving. . . Luke, writing in Greek, does not mention a meal. He does use the word diakonia, which can be translated a number of ways. We’ll go into that in another tessera. For now, what shifting impressions do you get of Martha, based on how this one verse is translated? What assumptions might the translators be carrying?
This passage in Luke, these 5 verses telling the story of Jesus with Martha and Mary, stirs up a lot of reactions among the women I know. One friend, whose gift of hospitality runs deep, has felt chastised by it for years. For another friend, it provided the word of affirmation that freed her to make a mid-life career change, responding to a call to ministry. Another grumbles that it may laud a contemplative lifestyle, but it still denigrates traditional women’s work as a whole. She appreciates Jesus’ reception of Mary, but figures the truly servant-leadership response to Martha would be for Jesus to go out and help with the dishes. Why not, if he was willing to do the servant task of washing feet?
With lectio, we try to approach the passage freshly, paying attention to how it is speaking to us today. The challenge is that we carry along past readings, for better or ill. We are shaped by past encounters – we may not consciously remember the illustration from a childhood book of Bible stories, but still be influenced by its picture of Martha standing near Jesus with a large bowl held in the crook of her elbow, scolding and pointing her mixing spoon at Mary, who sits on the floor at Jesus’ feet, gazing adoringly at his face.
Many years ago I attended a workshop on teaching the Bible. The large group was broken into small groups of 8-10 and handed an envelope. Each envelope had a bible passage and a handful of pictures, enough to go around. We were invited to take one of the pictures and to use it to reflect on the story. The passage for my group was this one, Luke 10:38-42, and my picture showed a middle-aged woman listening intently to a young man. As we began to share around the group, we discovered that we were each holding a different picture, with a wide variety of depictions of the main characters. I realized that the mental image I carried unthinkingly was of a young serene Mary, hair flowing down her back. How did it change my thoughts about this passage if Mary and Martha were middle-aged?
I keep coming back to this exercise as I look at commentaries on this passage, noticing the assumptions that are brought in, unsupported by the text. What are the images you carry for this passage? Are the women younger or older than Jesus? Wealthy and beautiful? Middle-aged peasants? Is it just the three of them or are there others? If there are others, are they villagers or the Twelve or a whole crowd of followers? Are there other women present? Are there dishes involved?
Some time ago I started leafing through Lectio Matters: Before the Burning Bush, written by Mary Margaret Funk, a Benedictine sister in Beech Grove, Indiana. Lectio is an important part of the prayer rhythm called for in the Benedictine Rule of Life, and Funk describes sustained lectio divina as "an encounter with the living God within our loving hearts. This is our individual practice that prepares us for liturgy, selfless service, community life, friendships and an ecclesial way of being in the world. Sustained lectio divina is a way of life. Rather than an exercise that we do daily, lectio is what we do all day long."
Drawing on the methods of the ancient Alexandrian Catechetical School, sustained lectio is the approach she taught for years at the Beech Grove School of Lectio Divina. In her own summary:
Lectio divina is an encounter with God:
This encounter with God is to listen with the ear of your heart. Lectio divina is our burning bush. We take off our sandals and bow our brow to the ground: our being bows before the living God. We invoke the Holy Spirit to bring to mind our particular text to use for lectio divina in the coming months.
We linger with this text for months, or until another text rises from underneath our consciousness.
Funk, p 3
I was intrigued, as I have been increasingly conscious of the similarities between paying attention to the shimmer or tug of a word in lectio, of an experience during a daily prayer of awareness (consciousness examen), and of a visual when doing contemplative photography. All call for noticing with the inner eye or ear of our heart.
Funk emphasizes beginning by asking the Holy Spirit to show us our text. I wondered what my text would be if I tried this, but it was a busy time and I set her book back on the library shelf.
Some time later I realized that the text had chosen me. I kept encountering Luke 10:38-42, the story of Jesus, Martha and Mary. I returned to Lectio Matters and began drawing on Funk’s teaching.
After some months with this prayer approach, I began wondering how I could share some of what I was finding. It didn’t feel like a sermon or a book. I needed a bite-size format, something where I could explore one element at a time, put vague thoughts into words, and share it with others. So here we are, one tessera at a time, creating a mosaic of this encounter between Jesus, Martha, Mary, and myself. I expect that for some time these tesserae will be a random mix of the literal/logical (looking at language, history, culture, exploring what the text says) and the symbolic/intuitive (memory, imagination, creative play – exploring what the text says to me), depending on what I am drawn to work on in a particular week.
In the morning quiet, I am reading Luke 10:38-42, Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary, lectio divina style. I read slowly, picturing the familiar story. Jesus arrives; Martha welcomes him into her home. Her sister Mary sits and listens to Jesus like a disciple. Martha, distracted by her many tasks, comes to him and urges him to tell Mary to help her. “Martha, Martha,” he says, “you are anxious and troubled about many things.”
I pause. The phrase echoes in my ears. “You are anxious and troubled about many things.” Indeed. Jesus is speaking to me. My ‘many things’ aren’t anything major, just the anxiety and tension of juggling my spiritual direction work, a part-time pastoral position, writing projects, helping octogenarian parents, managing household tasks, maintaining relationships with family and friends. Crises are clear. This is just too much to do and few clear deadlines. Even when everything is humming along relatively smoothly, there is an underlying layer of worry and distraction. Whatever I am doing, all the things I am not doing hang around in the background, nagging at me to notice them.
I sigh. “You are anxious and troubled about many things.” The sympathetic voice goes on: “Only one thing is needful.
Only one thing is needful. The phrases shimmer. You are anxious and troubled about many things. Only one thing is needful. I ruminate. One thing. Many things. Anxious and troubled. Only one thing is needful.
I ponder. I settle into prayer. Only one thing is needful. Listening to Jesus like a disciple, like Mary, of course, as I am trying to do with this lectio time, but am I hearing an additional invitation? Only one thing is needful. Of this clamoring crowd of tasks, is one more needful than the others? I let the question echo. What is the needful thing? Not my priority, Jesus, but yours.
Slowly, in the silence, I sense a response. One task surfaces. It’s not the one at the top of my to-do list, it’s not one that I would have said was the most urgent or the most important. But it settles into place with a feeling of rightness. Today, this is the needful thing, the place to begin. I rest in a place beyond words. As I move out of the quiet time, I test that sense of this one task being the needful thing for this morning. It still feels right, so I move to that task. The day flows on smoothly from one thing to another, that background nagging from other tasks stilled for now.
And when they start nagging again on other days, I return to my question. What is the needful thing, Jesus? And I wait, lectio style, to see which one surfaces.
Tesserae are the small cube-shaped tiles of ceramic, glass, or precious stone that are used to make a mosaic. Over the next while, I will be creating verbal tesserae, short essays exploring different bits of my ongoing lectio divina on Luke 10:38-42, Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary. Eventually, perhaps, we’ll discover the mosaic picture these tesserae create.
First, a word about lectio divina, or divine reading. Lectio is a centuries-old practice for reading scripture prayerfully. We approach the text seeking to encounter the living Word, an encounter that shapes and transforms us. We read a short passage slowly, noticing a word, phrase, or image that stands out for us; we stay with that phrase, savoring it and letting it echo in our hearts and imagination; we respond with prayer interaction through words, thoughts, and feelings; we move beyond words to rest in God. (Check here for simple directions on this way of Praying with Scripture.)
I have done lectio in multiple ways over the years, sometimes reading a few lines of scripture in the morning, discovering a word or phrase that has echoed throughout the day. For several years, I regularly went to www.sacredspace.ie/daily-prayer, an online website whose gentle questions guide the reader through lectio with the day’s chosen passage. I’ve also done group variations, where a weekly fellowship group looks at a passage together. And the contemplative photography I have been sharing on this blog is itself a sort of lectio divina, with the text being God’s creation.
With this story of Martha and Mary, I have been doing a sustained lectio divina, a way of going deep with a text that I encountered in Lectio Matters: before the burning bush, by Sister Mary Margaret Funk, a Benedictine nun from Indianapolis. More on this in upcoming Tesserae.