Love, Justice, and Housework
In the Gospel Reading, Martha is trying to feed Jesus and his disciples. If Jesus had come with only his twelve apostles, that still makes lunch for 13—or 16 if Martha and her family are going to have lunch too. Even with a modern kitchen, lunch for so many is not easy to prepare. I have no idea how Martha could manage it with whatever kitchen she had. And it’s worse for her because she is stuck doing it by herself. Her sister Mary is just sitting on the floor by Jesus, listening to him while Martha does all the work. How unjust to Martha is that?
So no wonder Martha nudges Jesus and insists that he tell Mary to get a move on, into the kitchen, helping with housework. Fair is fair! Jesus is supposed to be the greatest upholder of justice. Fairness to women should be part of his concern, too, shouldn’t it? Where is the fairness to Martha in Jesus’ being an enabler of Mary’s failure to help with the cooking?
But fairness to Mary is precisely what Jesus is protecting by refusing to send her into the kitchen, isn’t it? The best thing in the world is to be by Jesus, to love him, to learn from him, to give yourself to him. And Jesus will not let the need to cook lunch take that best thing away from Mary. What justice would there be if he did? Does the need for housework trump a person’s desire to be by the Lord and learn from him?
But, you might say, what about Martha? Where is the fairness for Martha here? And what if Martha had wanted to sit by the Lord, too. Then what would have happened to lunch?
But think about it. Is there really no other way that lunch could have gotten on the table, without forcing Mary (or Mary and Martha) away from the Lord? Couldn’t some of those male disciples have made lunch, for example? For that matter, couldn’t the Lord who miraculously fed five thousand have managed to feed a mere dozen or so in the same way? As far as that goes, what’s wrong with their all fasting on this occasion?
In protecting Mary as he does in this story, Jesus protects all women. The need for somebody to do manual labor is not a reason to make a woman give up her heart’s desire for learning and for listening to the Lord.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University