Thursday, July 14, 2022

Martha's Anxiety: Struggling alone against many things

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.

Note to preachers: I am going to pair this story about two sisters with a story about two brothers. Namely, for this text I want to look at H. Richard Niebuhr's essay, "The Grace of Doing Nothing." Then I'm going to circle back to last week's reading next week (such a rebel am I) and refer to Reinhold Niebuhr's responsive essay, "Must We Do Nothing?" both of which were printed in The Christian Century back in 1934. One could do the same in this story alone, pairing Richard with Mary and Reinhold with Martha. Just a thought.

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 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  δὲ Μάρθα περιεσπᾶτο περὶ πολλὴν διακονίαν: ἐπιστᾶσα δὲ εἶπεν, Κύριε, οὐ μέλει σοι ὅτι  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  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 
ἀφαιρεθήσεται αὐτῆς. 
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:


  1. I think that one of the problems people have with this text is always reading it as a text for women when it is instead a text for disciples. We all need to sit and hear the word of God.

  2. It's just about always the case that we do ourselves a disservice when we cut scripture up into our Sunday Snippets. Last week, the point of the story of the Samaritan (by itself) seems to be: Being a follower of Jesus' way is a matter of diakonia, radical, day-planner-changing service. "Go and do likewise."

    Which is then followed by the story of Martha, who as you pointed out is freaking out over her diakonia. She's doing exactly that which the previous story commanded. A hoard has descended on her house, and she is trying to serve their needs.

    And the radical word from Jesus four verses after "Go and do likewise" is "you're missing the point."

    The "New Proclamation" lectionary guide ends its reflection on this with "How easy is it to miss sight of the presence of Jesus even as diakonia is our aim? How do we know when the time is ripe to follow the Samaritan's example? How do we know we have lost our way as Martha did while she was serving Jesus?"

    I'll have to ponder that. Especially as I prepare to preach to a captive audience in a retirement/nursing community.

  3. Excellent, Dwight. Nicely put and good points. Thanks.

  4. It's actually a very tricky reading. Thank you again for your thoughts. I've also checked out the Girardion take on this which shows Martha as being in rivalry with Mary and seeking to draw Jesus into taking sides, which is at least interesting...

  5. It's actually a very tricky reading. Thank you again for your thoughts. I've also checked out the Girardion take on this which shows Martha as being in rivalry with Mary and seeking to draw Jesus into taking sides, which is at least interesting...

    1. Interesting indeed. Who better to show rivalry than sibling, eh? Thanks for the comment.

  6. Having JUST returned from my sabbatical, this is a powerful text to return to. Before I left, I was very distinctly Martha--overwhelmed, trying to do what everyone expects, resentful, torn in many directions, irritable, angry. Upon entering sabbatical, I struggled with different 'expectations'--that of quiet and stillness and basically trying to be Mary, reclining peacefully at Jesus' feet. Instead, I shifted my energy to home improvement projects. I was feeling guilty about undermining my time until I considered this passage in a new light. Activity as a distraction seems to be what caused Martha so much grief. Activity as competition, activity as striving to meet expectations, activity in response to scarcity. These are sure-fire ways to kill the spirit. However, activity as devotion, activity as compassion, activity as worship, activity in response to abundance is very much spirit-filled. In both times of service and times of prayer, when done with healthy intent, we dwell in God's Word. That is 'the one thing' (to channel the old cowboy from City Slickers").

    1. What a beautiful reflection on both this text and your sabbatical. Thank you, Tobi. Blessings as you re-enter the work in hopes that you will find the rhythm that allows you to remain connected to 'the one thing.'

  7. As always, a very valuable commentary. And good comments below the line. But your ‘narrative leap’ between verses 38 and 39 is only a leap if we allow verse 38 to set this story *in Martha’s house* (which, as you recognise, is not supported by the Greek text but comes from its translators). A domestic setting, overstretched by a large visiting party, plays all too easily into the traditional dichotomy between the practical Martha slaving away in the kitchen and the contemplative Mary lounging on the drawing room carpet: thus we oblige Christians – especially Christian women – to choose their preferred role-model and the guilt that goes with it.

    What if we strip away the translators’ gloss and (1) take out ‘into the house’ in 38, (2) put back the ‘also’ in 39 and (3) accept – as the text suggests – that Jesus just went in to see his friends alone, without the ‘entourage’ that the traditional reading asks us to imagine? If so, we restore a measure of equality between Martha and Mary as genuine disciples who were both, figuratively, at Jesus’ feet. There is an issue between them but it is not about catering.

    I agree with Dwight that we do ourselves a disservice by slicing up the Gospel into weekly segments: if we are conflicted about the way in which head, heart and hand play their part in responding to Jesus – and this is essentially the conflict that Martha expresses – we need to look back at the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and ahead to the instruction about how to pray (11:1-4) for the fuller story.

  8. To piggy back on Tobi's comments. the long section this belongs (starting with the sending of the 70?) is also about being present. Don't worry about what to take, what to eat, etc. Behere, now. That is echoed in the good samaritan. Those whose focus is ahead of themselves (going to Jerusalem to do my thing) miss those in need. Their head is in the future. And Tobi pulls it together with the clarification of activity needed to be mindful. Thanks!

  9. These comments comprise the best discussion of a text I've seen yet on my blog. Thank you all for your serious and helpful insights.

  10. It occurs to me that a great illustration is the song Seek Ye First with Descant contrasting Martha with lyric and Mary with descant

    1. That is an intriguing comment, Ken. I have often found Jeremy Begbie's suggestion that we should think musically rather than visually to understand many biblical possibilities. This is a great expression of Begbie's suggestion.

    2. if unfamiliar with song referenced:

  11. Just a brief comment on your opening - you'll remember that "the hysterical woman" has Greek roots and hysteria was treated as a female disease - if the movie Hysteria is to be believed, by forced hysterectomy.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  15. A few comments and throw-it-out-there thoughts: The word 'house' is not used here. Does Martha welcome Jesus (and not the disciples?) into her village, rather than into her house? Is she the local mayor providing a reception for the visitor?

    The word 'Lord' is used three times in a few verses. Why not 'Jesus'? In addition, is Mar-tha an abbreviation of 'maranatha', the eucharistic prayer referred to in 1 Cor 18? And does Mari-am mean 'My lord is Yah' or 'the Lord is Yah'? So, is this all an issue between kyria (ch 2 John 1) in the community?

    Martha is involved in diakonia which has to be more than making cups of tea for the men. The same word used of Jesus who came 'to serve'. Is Acts 6 a parallel issue to here? There's a division made between those who were devoted to preaching the word and those devoted to serving at tables. It's not either .. or there, nor is it here.

    I'm not sure Mariam is a learner. She 'heard the word of the Lord' much like Samuel, Isaiah, Amos and many of the prophets did. It's the logos she was hearing (continuous) - that creative, performative, life-changing word that another Mary heard telling her that she would become pregnant. Mariam is an authorised hearer of the word (and so, like a prophet, also a proclaimer of it?).

    Jesus doesn't invite Martha to abandon her diakonia and to join Mariam her 'sister' (not meant biologically). Martha thinks Mariam should abandon her hearing role and become a deacon. Jesus says no. Both sisters named Mar* have a 'portion' from the Lord and one is not better than the other. The dominant/domina Marthas in a community need to learn that.

    This is, then, not a domestic issue but an ecclesial one.

  16. Translators add "things" all too often in an attempt to complete the sense of verse. An American Indian sage often says that "thing" lacks an equivalent word in indigenous language because it involves an objectification and thus distancing relationship.

    What if the text reads that Martha was concerned about many (people) while Mary was concerned about one (person).

    In the larger narrative this concern about the one who is necessary leads to cross and resurrection and ascension. The Lukan is never without the overall story. Or so it seems to me.


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