I have a friend who these days teaches religion at one of the “Little Ivy League” colleges. He’s a bit embarrassed to recall how enthusiastic he was back in the days of the Jesus Movement—you know, that time in the seventies when some flower children decided to get high on Jesus in place of more mundane substances. Ted was really high on Jesus back then. He used to spend hours praying on the roof of his parents’ house, he was so into God. Or so he admitted to us, his classmates, when he had freshly arrived from a “big” Ivy League school to begin his doctorate at The University of Chicago. The University of Chicago is not the sort of place you associate with people high on Jesus, so we loved to tease him about that.
One year we all wound up at a conference near his home, and he invited us there to meet his parents and sister. We decided to do a little fact checking, so we asked, “Did Ted really spend hours praying on your rooftop?” And his sister said, “Well, sometimes, usually when it was time for somebody to mow the lawn.” It seems that there are times when devotion to God can really come in handy.
By the way, his name isn’t really Ted. I’ve changed a few details about him to protect the not-so-innocent, especially since I didn’t ask his permission to share this story.
I think of “Ted” every time I read this story about Mary and Martha. Jesus and his entourage arrive at their home without phoning ahead, and there must be a million things to do—find enough food, prepare it, figure out where everybody sleeps, find enough bedding—all that essential stuff, and here’s Mary, like Ted, suddenly getting high on Jesus when it’s time for somebody to mow the lawn. Surely she’s shirking her duties when she’s really needed, and Jesus actually commends her for it!
It doesn’t sound fair. What if everybody did that? Well, what if we all did? What if we all acted like Mary? Would things fall apart?
Maybe some things would, but there are some things that need to fall apart. And what Mary is doing is not getting out of work—she’s actually working to make some things fall apart right before our eyes. She’s starting a revolution. The revolution got postponed, but that’s what Mary’s starting.
Martha sees Jesus’ visit as an occasion to show hospitality. And she’s right about that. Jesus wants everybody to be hospitable. He wants everybody to serve one another regardless of social status (22:24-26). That’s Jesus’ vision. But it’s a revolutionary vision, a vision that overturns the ways we try to stick certain types of people with the jobs we don’t like. Instead, we need leaders who serve, and servants who lead. And that applies to women as well as men.
Mary gets that. She’s not going to behave the way people of that time expected a woman to behave. She’s making a subversive career change, breaking through a glass ceiling to join the men sitting at Jesus’ feet as they learn to share in his ministry’s leadership. She’s like a woman in the Victorian era deciding to become a surgeon, to the embarrassment her family, or a woman fifty years ago deciding to become a Priest.
That’s something we may not notice in this story, because centuries of assumptions about women have gotten in the way. There’s clear evidence that women were also leaders among Jesus’ earliest followers, but it wasn’t long before the men edged women out of those roles and tried to erase the memory. If I asked you to name all the Apostles (don’t worry, I won’t), most of you would probably come up with a list of men. But at the end of his letter to the Romans St. Paul sends greetings to a woman named Junia, who he says is “prominent among the Apostles” (Romans 16:7). She was not only an Apostle but a prominent Apostle, and yet most of the Church forgot about her. In almost the same breath Paul speaks of a Deacon named Phoebe, and he admonishes the Romans to do whatever she requires (16:1-2). Phoebe apparently had clout, at least for a while.
Yes, there are other letters written in Paul’s name where women are excluded from leadership, but most of today’s scholars believe those were written long after Paul had died. That’s more evidence that a coverup was at work. But the most reliable evidence we have points to a time in the early Church when leadership at all levels was open to women as well as men. It made the men uncomfortable—nothing new about that—and eventually they couldn’t handle it.
But while they tried to erase the memory, they let a few recollections slip through. And this story is one of them. It’s not about getting out of work. It’s about working against the grain, against prevailing expectations. That’s not easy! But it’s the one thing needed—a community where leadership and service are shared by everybody.
Jesus invites Martha to shake off others’ expectations and join Mary’s revolution. And that’s where the story ends. We don’t know if Martha took him up on the offer or not. But here is a perfect occasion for us to do what rabbis used to do and use a little imagination to fill in what might have happened. They call that midrash, so here’s an Episcopalian midrash:
Let’s imagine Martha considering Jesus’ invitation. She says, “Sure, Jesus, I’ll drop everything I was doing and join Mary and the rest of the guys. But let’s see what happens when it’s time for supper. The men will not be happy.”
Jesus says, “Okay, let’s see what happens.”
So Martha has an afternoon she had never dreamed possible. And then it’s supper time. Some of the men start to look around, and they don’t see anything happening. And one of them shouts, “Hey, who’s fixing supper? Tell these women to stop taking it easy and get back to work!”
And Jesus replies, “Get back to work? They’ve been working just as hard as you have.”
Another man yells even louder, “But we still need our supper! How’s that going to happen?”
Jesus asks, “So what did you do for supper yesterday? We’ve been on the road day after day, and you always managed to eat and find a place to sleep. Did you forget how to do that when women are present? It wouldn’t be the first time! Mary and Martha have opened their home to you. There’s plenty of food you can prepare, and there are plenty of comfortable places to sleep. And it’s all free. Just what have I been teaching you, anyway? ‘The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves, … [because] I am among you as one who serves’ (22:26-27). So stop playing helpless, and let’s all pitch in. You might still learn something.”
Here ends the midrash. It may not have happened, but it’s what should have happened. It may not be historically accurate, but it’s a true story, a true way of fleshing out what the one thing needed is—a community where leadership and service are shared by everybody, led by the God who is among us as one who serves. We know that’s our calling, just as it was Martha’s and Mary’s calling, though we’re usually too “worried and distracted by many things” to give this calling the attention it deserves.
Mary’s revolutionary choice left a legacy that, despite cover-ups, bears fruit now more than ever. Just ask Bishop Jennifer about that.
There is need for only one thing—a community where leadership and service are shared by everybody, led by the God who is among us as one who serves. Among us mortals it seems a fleeting accomplishment, but we trust that God will keep making it happen here and now. That was Mary’s revolution. Let it be ours. Amen.