Historical Cultural Context
Mary, Martha, and Jesus
Perhaps the most stunning cultural element in the story is that Jesus appears to be teaching a woman.
First of all, someone is out of place. In the gender-based division of space in this culture, it is very likely Mary who is sitting with Jesus in an area reserved for men (whether dining area or “livingroom” area).
Second, even though Jesus may be breaking cultural rules by teaching Mary, she appears to be passive listener. She never is reported to teach in her turn or take up a ministry later.
Third, since Jesus interacts with Mary here and in John 11, Malina suggests that Martha might have been the younger sister.
In the Mediterranean cultural perspective on human activity men are expected to be spontaneous, to react to the challenge, opportunity, or invitation of the moment (see Lk 7:31-35). Women are expected to work, achieve, to be involved in purposeful activity.
When men are healed in Luke, they respond spontaneously and run out to spread the word. When Simon's mother-in-law is healed, her first response is the measured activity of serving a meal.
Jesus' positive judgment that “Mary has chosen the better part” and his gentle reminder to Martha for being “worried and distracted about many things” fits into Jesus' customary, counter-structural positions. He frequently takes his culture's second-choice options for either gender, in this case “spontaneous” behavior among women, and urges it as a good alternative to the first choice (“achievement”).
For men, he regularly urges that they who hold spontaneity as their primary activity look instead to methodical and thoughtful “doing” of the will of God, “keeping” the commandments, and so on.
According to Luke's Jesus, when there is a choice between extending steadfast loving kindness (Martha) and listening to the word of God (Mary), the latter is preferable.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University