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?
Sharing tesserae from a sustained lectio divina with Luke 10:38-42
Tesserae: small cube-shaped tiles of ceramic, glass or precious stone used to make a mosaic, or in this case, brief essays on some element of lectio divina with Luke 10:38-42.