Martha: Busy Hostess or Dragon Slayer?

The Gospel of John and medieval legend show Mary’s sister to value theology and hospitality.

The summer before my senior year of high school, a new book came out called Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. This book articulated what I had heard around the halls of my church growing up. I remember women vocally identifying as either a “Martha” or a “Mary” with the ultimate goal of becoming more like the disciple Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet, while bemoaning our Martha-like overworking tendencies. (Ironically, the “Marthas” were the ones responsible for running most of the church programs.)

As medieval historian Beth Allison Barr points out in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Martha continues to be used as a prototype of doers and homemakers in books written for women. And while this caricature of Martha is good for selling books on biblical womanhood, is it too simplistic?

The prevailing impression we have of Martha is shaped by a thin reading of Luke 10. It includes the episode near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, where, while teaching, he exhorts Martha for being overly worried with housework: “Martha, Martha …”

While the meaning of this story is debated by scholars, it has dominated the North American church’s image of Martha. Too often the Martha described elsewhere in the Gospels has been forgotten. The result is a strawman of the real Martha.

In early church history and during the Reformation, Martha and her sister Mary were viewed as a yin-and-yang representation of action versus contemplation. They were “as two parts of the same life rather than as two opposed ways of life,” writes Episcopal priest and scholar Margaret Arnold.

During this period, Martha’s action was not separated from the life of the church but was viewed …

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