Proper 11, Year C
Regular readers of this blog know that I highly recommend The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels as a supplement to other kinds of commentaries. The Social Science Commentary chooses a particularly intriguing (for some) and/or provocative (for some) heading for the verses from Luke that form our gospel reading for this Sunday:
"Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers"
This is a wonderful gospel passage to have for services the day before we celebrate the feast day of Mary Magdalene, whom I've preached about before as a woman who found freedom as a "loose woman" without conventional attachments to conventional men, as honored patron of Jesus' followers even before there was such a thing as a "church" or such a word as "Christian," and as apostle to the apostles, chosen among the first witnesses' to Jesus' resurrection.
This Sunday, we get to see a bit of why Mary Magdalene was not an oddity among Jesus' earliest followers for being a woman, or for taking on many roles of service to Jesus and his mission that would normally in her culture belong to men. Indeed, Christianity was mocked by many as a religion of women and slaves because Mary Magdalene was NOT an oddity in the church, because although she may have been exceptionally gifted, she had many female colleagues in Christian leadership.
I have heard many sermons on this Sunday's gospel, and nearly all of them could have borne a title along the lines of, "Why Martha Is Very, Very Wrong." That's hardly fair to Martha. Martha in this story is being a good woman. Somebody has to see that dinner is made and all of the myriad other domestic needs -- and this is way before electric ovens and dishwashers -- are taken care of. It's not as though all of the male disciples would instantly leap to their feet and rush to the kitchen to help.
And it's not as though their help would necessarily be welcomed if they did so. As the Social-Science Commentary helpfully points out, even though women were traditionally confined to the domestic sphere, they still could have some serious influence with culturally prescribed roles. And as lots of us have observed in lots of contexts, wherever there's power -- especially when it's perceived as being in limited supply within a particular segment of a community -- there's a great deal of competition for that power.
Women in the first-century Mediterranean world were largely segregated from the public competition for honor that took place among men in the public sphere -- but that in no way kept them from competition within their own sphere, and that competition could be fierce. Furthermore, the honor of a household depended significantly upon the management of that household. Martha is being a good woman in trying to see that everyone on the "domestic sphere" team works together.
In short, let's not rag on Martha this Sunday. She is doing her best to fulfill what most of the men present no doubt expected of her.
And if I can have a little excursis here, I'd like to indulge in one to explain what I mean when I say that I think this story, as so many stories from Jesus' ministry, can be read fruitfully as one should read a parable. As I've talked about before in this blog, parables aren't cute little allegories that provide a little narrative color to some good ol' fashioned and entirely conventional wisdom. The message of the "Parable of the Sower," for example, is NOT that smart farmers distribute seed in good soil rather than in pigeon-packed parking lots. When we read Jesus' parables, we haven't read them well if we haven't seen the most important characteristic of those parables: how they confound expectations in surprising and often shocking ways. The "Parable of the Sower" is not about a farmer learning not to throw seed in "bad soil"; it's about God surprisingly (and in many minds, inexplicably) blessing a farmer of very limited means who DOES toss valuable grain about as if he had all the grain in the world.
Similarly, the story of Martha and Mary that we read today is NOT the story of a Bad Disciple or a grumpy housewife who doesn't have a clue about what's important in life. It is a shocking story -- shocking like those electrified paddles that can give life to people whose hearts have stopped beating. The Social-Science Commentary points toward that shocking, life-giving truth in this Sunday's gospel in their heading: "Legitimation of a Woman Taking a Male Role Among Jesus' Followers."
Perhaps the social-science-ness of the first word puts you to sleep. That is an odd power of certain kinds of academic language. But I think even that doesn't completely dull the point: Jesus praises a woman for acting as though she were a man.
There's a lot in there to grate on sensibilities.
If you think that God on the day of humanity's creation ordained certain roles for women and other certain roles for men, and that we can't be good women or good men without defining clearly those changeless roles and living strictly within those boundaries, then this Sunday's gospel is going to blow your mind if you pay too much attention.
But it doesn't stop there -- or at least, it doesn't have to. We can take a lot more from this passage, because while I believe the passage speaks strongly against a view of roles for men and women as static, divinely ordained, and not overlapping, I think it points toward a much larger and more mind-blowing possibility:
God didn't make you to fill a role. God made you for love -- to be loved by God, and to express with your life how you see God loving the world.
For example, I would say to people who share my citizenship that God didn't make you an American, and God doesn't expect you to be a good American.
We could try out some different versions of this, and some of them might be fruitful for some of us. For me, it's sometimes fruitful to wonder what it might mean to say that God didn't make me a priest, and God doesn't expect me to be a good priest. I don't mean by that to say that I don't feel called to priestly ministry (I do), or that I don't take the vows involved in that seriously (I do!). What I mean is that there may be some challenging, liberating, refocusing, life-giving fruit in thinking of my identity and my ministry first and foremost as a child of God loved by God, as a human being made in God's image, as a follower of Jesus with a Baptismal identity that ideally, any other identity I take seriously will express, and frequently, that other identities will be eclipsed by.
I am a woman. I love being a woman. The good things I experience as a woman are God's gift. But God is not calling me to be a "good woman"; God calls me to be a faithful disciple.
I am an Anglican and an Episcopalian. I experience rich blessings through the tradition of which I'm privileged to be a part, and I don't expect to be called to a different tradition. But God is not calling me to be a good Anglican; God is calling me to be a faithful Christian.
I am a progressive. I feel strongly about the progressive convictions I hold, and I am blessed by the advocacy work I do. But God is not calling me to be a good progressive; God is calling me to follow Jesus.
You get the idea. I chose a few particular roles, a few identities, to cite as examples not because I'm "dissing" those roles, but because I value them -- and because the most seductive of temptations is the temptation to hold on to something good even if it means foregoing something better. And we who are richly blessed are most vulnerable to that temptation.
It's fully possible that Mary, Martha's sister, chose to sit at Jesus' feet on that day because she was embarrassed at her terrible cooking skills, because she was lazy or tired, because she was filled with hubris about her own status or jealous of the male disciples who took sitting at Jesus' feet for granted. We don't know what was going on in her head any more than Martha did. What we do know -- what Jesus tells us -- is that Mary's choice to be a bad woman and a bad sister on this day is praised as the conduct of a good disciple.
What happened next? I like to think that Mary's choice to be a "bad woman" inspired a few other disciples to be "bad men," to behave in ways their culture would say were absolutely shameful for men and to go into the kitchen and offer to serve the women as woman had so often served them.
Because that could be the behavior of "bad men" and good disciples. It's maleness as Jesus lived his, after all; just look at the exalted language used of him in our epistle for this Sunday and compare it to his behavior as he washed his followers' feet, as he forgave from the cross, as he took on the role of a slave, as Philippians 2 points out.
God knows (and I mean that; it's not just an expression) how powerful the roles we play, the names we take, can be in seeming to make an endless series of choices for us. God knows how many people will tell us with how much honest passion just what grief will befall us and those we love if we don't do what our society says we ought to do within those roles. For example, I know many sisters in Christ who are "helicopter moms (or dads)" hovering over their children or "workaholic dads (or moms)" spending more and more time away from those they love at least as much for fear of what will happen if they deviate from that role as from any kind of joy or peace they derive from it. But what if the hope that "we may present everyone mature in Christ" means that at least at points we have to relinquish those roles -- even when they give us respectability, admiration from people who want to know how we do it all, and any number of other seductive rewards -- so that we can make room for someone else to stretch into new areas of service, other ways of discipleship?
The message of this Sunday's gospel is not that study with a rabbi or minister always trumps housework. It's not that women's work is inferior to men's. And you'd have to be smoking something very potent and probably illegal to think that it's that gender roles were established by God and are blurred at our spiritual peril. The message, I think, is that we all may be and often are called to relinquish roles, identities, patterns of behavior that feel "tried and true" or even immutable not only for the sake of growing in our own discipleship, but to invite others -- even or especially others who may seem perfectly happy with a privileged role they've got -- to become more fully who they are in Christ, and to live more fully into the ministry to which Christ calls them.
And the wonderful, shocking, life-giving truth is that relinquishing for Christ's sake often yields more blessings than we know how to gather -- blessings so rich they must be shared.
Thanks be to God!
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Thank you - this is very helpful.
Posted by: Erin | Jul 22, 2007 2:21:58 AM
This is so good that I'm tempted to read your words when I guest preach on July 18, 2010 (same Gospel in the Lectionary cycle), instead of trying to write anything new. Of course, I would give proper credit. I guess that's my twisted way of saying - wow - God got me in new ways through reading your Mary/Martha words. Thanks!
Posted by: Greg | May 13, 2010 5:20:15 PM