Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Luke 10:38-42, the gospel reading for the ninth Sunday after Pentecost in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. Your comments are welcomed.
For me, a very important interpretive question I bring to the story is “What exactly is it that Jesus is addressing in his response to Martha?”
My question arises from hearing this story presented many times as a way of dismissing those persons whose works, gifts, and vocation of hospitality are compared unfavorably to more introspective, devotional approaches to faith. In that presentation of the story, Mary seems to be the ideal disciple because she spends her time in devotion instead of activity; Martha seems to be the hysterical woman who has lost perspective; and Jesus seems to be someone who takes all of his provisions for granted. I liken that presentation of Jesus to the preacher who goes on and on about not working too hard in order to take time to listen to Jesus, only to go home and sit at a dinner without any thought to how much work went into all that fried chicken on the table.
Because hospitality is an important virtue in Middle East culture and vocation in the Reign of God, I want to approach this text with a little more sympathy to Martha and what she is experiencing. In the end, the story makes it clear that it is Mariam whom has chosen the good and necessary part. But, does that mean that sitting is better than serving? Or, is there something else at play here?
38 Ἐν δὲ τῷ πορεύεσθαι αὐτοὺς αὐτὸς εἰσῆλθεν εἰς κώμην τινά: γυνὴ δέ τις
ὀνόματι Μάρθα ὑπεδέξατο αὐτόν εἰς τὴν οἰκίαν.
Yet in the continuing of them he entered into a certain village; then a certain woman in name Martha welcomed him into the house.
πορεύεσθαι : PMInf, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer 1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on one's journey εἰσῆλθεν: AAI 3s, εἰσέρχομαι, 1) to go out or come in: to enter
ὑπεδέξατο : AMI, 3s, ὑποδέχομαι, 1) to receive as a guest
1. The text from www.greekbible.com does not have “into the house,” so there is a textual variation in play.
2. Martha “welcomed” Jesus and his entourage into the house. The word is used four times in the NT. In addition to here, it describes Zacchaeus when he welcomes Jesus into his house (at Jesus’ command) in Luke 19; It describes Jason, who was dragged out with his household by an angry mob for providing hospitality to Paul and Silas; and it describes Rahab’s heroic work in welcoming Israelite spies into her house and enabling them to escape when James 2 looks back at an OT story to argue that faith without works is dead. At least in this introductory sentence, Martha’s act of welcoming puts her in good company with those whose hospitality is laudable.
39 καὶ τῇδε ἦν ἀδελφὴ καλουμένη Μαριάμ, [ἣ] καὶ παρακαθεσθεῖσα πρὸς
τοὺς πόδας τοῦ κυρίου ἤκουεν τὸν λόγον αὐτοῦ.
And to whom there was a sister who is called Mariam, [who] also having sat at the feet of the Lord, was hearing his word.
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present.
καλουμένη: PPPart nsf, καλέω, 1) to call
παρακαθεσθεῖσα: APPart, nfs, παρακαθίζω,seat one's self
ἤκουεν : IAI 3s, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf 2) to hear 2b) to attend to, consider what is or has been said
1. Most translations read “she had a sister,” instead of my “to whom there was a sister.” The word τῇδε is a form of the relative pronoun ὅδε, which is in the dative case, thus “to whom.” The verb ἦν is an imperfect form of the verb ‘to be.’ Perhaps together they make a colloquial phrase “she had.”
2. There is a bit of a narrative leap between vv. 38 and 39, moving immediately from Jesus entering the house to Jesus’ ongoing act of teaching. The perfect and imperfect tenses of ‘having sat’ and ‘was hearing’ move the narrative forward quickly.
3. Mariam is sitting at Jesus’ feet. This is the only use of παρακαθίζω in the NT with the prefix παρα. The verb καθίζω (sit) itself is used often. To sit at the feet has an interesting use in Luke/Acts. In Lk. 8:35 it describes the man who had just been liberated from a legion of demons and is now in his right mind, clothed, sitting at Jesus’ feet. In Acts 22:3, Paul uses the phrase to describe himself as a disciples of Gamaliel.
4. Please note that while I am looking at this text in order to present Martha in a more sympathetic light, I am completely on board with this powerful description of Mary as a genuine disciple.
40 ἡ δὲ Μάρθα περιεσπᾶτο περὶ πολλὴν διακονίαν: ἐπιστᾶσα δὲ εἶπεν, Κύριε, οὐ μέλει σοι ὅτι ἡ ἀδελφή μου μόνην με κατέλιπεν διακονεῖν;
εἰπὲ οὖν αὐτῇ ἵνα μοι συναντιλάβηται.
Yet Martha was distracted around much service; then having stood over she said, “Lord, is it not a care to you that my sister left only me to serve? Therefore, speak to her in order that she might jointly struggle with me.”
περιεσπᾶτο : IPI, 3s περισπάω to draw from around any one, to draw off or away. In NT passive to be drawn about in mind, hence, to be distracted, over-occupied with cares or business.
ἐπιστᾶσα : AAPart, nfs, ἐφίστημι, 1) to place at, place upon, place over 1a) to stand by, be present 1b) to stand over one, place one's self above 1b1) used esp. of persons coming upon one suddenly
μέλει : PAI 3s, it is a care
κατέλιπεν : AAI, 3s, καταλείπω, 1) to leave behind 1a) to depart from, leave 1a1) to be left 1b) to bid (one) to remain 1c) to forsake, leave to one's self a person or thing by ceasing to care for it, to abandon, leave in the lurch
διακονεῖν: PAInf, διακονέω, 1)) to be a servant, attendant, domestic, to serve, wait upon
συναντιλάβηται: AMSubj, 3s, συναντιλαμβάνομαι, 1) to lay hold along with, to strive to obtain with others, help in obtaining 2) to take hold with another
1. This is the only appearance of verb περισπάω in the NT. It is translated “distracted” by the YLT, ESV, NIV, and NRSV versions of the NT; and “cumbered about” in the KJV. (The NRSV, incidentally, also uses “distracted” for a different word, μεριμνᾷς, in v.41.)
I put part of the definition of περισπάω above in italics because the statement begins with “In NT passive …” as if there were some consistent pattern behind the use of this word in the NT, when this is the one and only usage.
2. For περισπάω , the prefix περι (“peri”) means around; the stem σπάω (“spao”) means to break, according to one modern dictionary. It is the stem for the English words ‘spasm’ and ‘spastic,’ which may be suggestive here. Would it help if we translated it to say that Martha was “totally spazed with all work she had to do”? The emphasis would not be on the industry or Martha’s work itself, but on how it has discombobulated her.
3. The narrator uses ἐπιστᾶσα (“having stood over”) to describe Martha’s approach to Jesus. (See below the uses of this verb in Luke.) One effect of this verb may be to contrast Martha’s and Mary’s postures. The possibility that this verb means to come upon someone suddenly suggests an outburst or that Martha aggressively confronting Jesus.
4. Most refined translation have οὐ μέλει σοι as “Do you not care...” At this stage of a rough translation, we notice that the verb is not in the 2nd person. It is in the 3rd person voice, then the pronoun is in the 2nd person dative, thus “is it not a care to you?”
5. The verb συναντιλάβηται is interesting and I am going out on a limb here a bit by translating it as “she might jointly struggle.” It is a compound of συν- with; αντι- against; and λάβηται- which is a form of λαμβάνομαι – to take. I am reading the αντι not to mean that Martha wants Mariam to work against her, but as a way to describe the distracting ‘much serving’ as a struggle, as in ‘to take against.’ If this is right, then from Martha’s perspective, there is much to be done, not in the form of a checklist, but more in the form of a whirlwind of needs to be met. Martha wants Jesus to speak to Mariam to join her in struggling to meet those needs.
41 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῇ ὁ κύριος, Μάρθα Μάρθα, μεριμνᾷς καὶ
θορυβάζῃ περὶ πολλά,
Yet having answered the Lord said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and panicked about many,
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
μεριμνᾷς : PAI, 2s, μεριμνάω, 1) to be anxious 1a) to be troubled with cares
θορυβάζῃ : PPI, 2s disturb greatly, terrify, strike with panic
1. I love the translation of Bullinger’s description of θορυβάζῃ as “to make turbid.” I am going to use ‘turbid’ in a sentence this week.
2. While the verb θορυβάζῃ is only used here, the related noun θόρυβος, can mean an uproar (Acts 17:5) or wailing (Mark 5:39, Matthew 9:23). In Acts 20:10, θορυβεῖσθε, it refers to the alarm that people had over someone who had fallen from an upper story window.
3. While the verb θορυβάζῃ is only used once in the NT, the verb μεριμνάω (anxious) is used often. Among other things, Jesus uses it repeatedly in Lk.12, teaching again “worrying.” Only this is not worrying about the small stuff, the first reference in 12:11 is to those who are brought before the authorities, who have the power to bind, imprison, and execute.
4. Putting μεριμνάω and θορυβάζῃ together, this seems to indicate radical anxiety that Martha is experiencing, not just the usual busyness of hospitality. Let’s not forget that in the previous chapter, Jesus has disclosed his forthcoming death to his disciples. Twice. Whether Martha and Mary were part of that disclosure is not clear. If they were, it would lend a perilous quality to Jesus’ visit and words, would it not?
42 ἑνὸς δέ ἐστιν χρεία: Μαριὰμ γὰρ τὴν ἀγαθὴν μερίδα ἐξελέξατο ἥτις οὐκ
yet one is necessary; For Mary chose the good part, which will not be taken away from her.”
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐξελέξατο : AMI 3s, ἐκλέγομαι, 1) to pick out, choose, to pick or choose out for one's self
ἀφαιρεθήσεται : FPI 3s, ἀφαιρέω, 1) to take from, take away, remove, carry off
1. The first phrase of this verse, “yet one is necessary,” should be the end of v.41, contrasting the ‘one’ with the ‘many’. Incidentally, the ESV points out that some of the early manuscripts say “few things” not “one thing.” The word “thing” is supplied here as well as with the adjective ‘many’ in most translations.
2. It seems that “the good part” is another way of expressing ‘the one necessity among the many distracting, anxiety-ridden things.’
3. 3. Other uses of the verb ἀφαιρέω (taken away) in Luke refer to God taking away Elizabeth’s reproach for having been barren; a master taking away a steward’s job; and a disciple cutting off a soldier’s ear. The issue seems to be that Martha is trying to take away what Mary has chosen.
Martha is overwhelmed at serving Jesus and his entourage (the text begins with the plural, ‘the continuing of them’). The language of this story amps up the volume a lot. Martha is having what looks like a panic attack. Not one that is rooted in a chemical imbalance or disorder, but one that is evoked by the overwhelming expectations she is facing as the host who is welcoming Jesus and his people. She may be on the verge of losing it. She certainly sees what she is doing as a struggle and she feels completely alone in it. Until we sympathize with the genuine challenge that Martha is facing, the internal ‘riot’ that she is experiencing, then we will only dumb down this story into “Martha, Martha” as a condescending pat on the head. She’s a wreck because she is trying to respond well to what Jesus has put before her. That’s the kind of stormy anxiety that we have to identify with in Martha. I’m not saying that we have to become Martha in all of her anxiety before we can fully appreciate Mary’s sitting. I am saying that we have to appreciate Martha’s position before we critique Martha. She really is panicking about the many things. Jesus does not say that she is irrational or wrong-headed. He merely says that he will not stop Mary from her sitting and hearing.
What I don’t hear is that being busy or serving or getting things done or even rushing from this to that are, in themselves, the problem. The problem is when the distraction of the many take away the ability to capture the one, the good part.
In the end, Mary has chosen the good part out of the many things by sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing the word. She is entitled to be there and not obligated to leave there – either because of her gender or because of the real, overwhelming work that calls to be done. She has chosen the necessary part. She needs to be there. The response to Martha is evoked by her insistence that Mary likewise be distracted from her choice by the overwhelming anxieties that Martha is carrying.
Here are the uses of ἐφίστημι in Luke.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of
the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord,
and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.
And he stood over her, and rebuked the fever; and it left her: and
immediately she arose and ministered unto them.
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.
And it came to pass, that on one of those days, as he taught the
people in the temple, and preached the gospel, the chief priests
and the scribes came upon him with the elders,
And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be
overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this
life, and so that day come upon you unawares.
And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout,
behold, two men stood by them in shining garments: