38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But 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.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
What I am Learning
It has been about 30 years since women were first ordained in the Lutheran and Episcopal churches. It was an intense debate that in many ways mirrored the more recent conversations about same-sex clergy.
One key part of the debate is the role of the Bible: is it primarily setting the limits of what we can do, or does it set a direction for us to go?
I would argue that the Bible does both. Certainly there are issues that are so central to the Christian way that they really are not much questioned: that God created the universe in some way, that God entered into human history in Jesus in a unique way, that God's Spirit continues to move us toward the reign of God.
Certainly there are ethical and moral teachings in the Bible that are central and will never be questioned in a significant way. But the Bible is not just a rule book setting the limits for what human beings should and should not do and how to order human community.
This is in part because the Bible itself reflects a debate within the faith community about ethics and how we are to order human community. The editors of the Bible did not scrub these debates out of the Bible. The book of Job and much of the wisdom writings sees the problem of evil very differently than the book Deuteronomy. Isaiah says that eunuchs should be able to enter the temple, but Nehemiah said that they could not enter the temple because they were unclean.
In the text today we see Jesus come down sharply on one side about the role of women.
To sit at the feet of a teacher was to be accepted as an official disciple. When Mary sits at Jesus feet she has been accepted as a seminary student, and thus would one day be a teacher herself.
In first century culture, indeed for thousands of years, women were not allowed to take such a public role of leadership. They had much leadership and responsibility in the home, but not in public. Members of this very tradition based culture would have responded very violently to any women in such leadership, perhaps even to the point of stoning her.
When Martha comes into the room she is trying to prevent Mary and Jesus from being hurt by just such a reaction. She blames Mary to try to save Jesus' honor, but she is really worried about both of them. In her first century Palestinian culture, she is saying to both of them: "Don't you know you are putting both of you in danger, I love you, are you sure about what you are doing!"
But Jesus is willing to risk is life, as is Mary, for women to be able to be public leaders in Christian community.
In this case, as in many others, the Bible is setting not only limits for human behavior and the ordering of community, but also setting a direction: that followers of Jesus will continue to strive and to risk for a world in which all people are honored, respected, and encouraged to whatever role in community best fits them.
There is a tension and a conversation between the role of the Bible as a norm setting document and a direction setting document.
It is both.
Jesus calls us to continue this kind of debate because he certainly participated in it. He was very clear in his critique of people who used the norms of the Bible to oppress minorities and the vulnerable. He was very clear that the heart of the Biblical teaching is worth studying - but more so worth living.
The Lutheran and Episcopal churches have been so blessed by the leadership of women these last three decades. I am glad that Jesus and Mary risked it!
I am also glad that Martha cared enough to make them very conscious of what they were risking.