A Place at the Table

Luke 10:38-42

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

Sometimes it’s easier to be a man. Your last name is not an issue. Wedding plans take care of themselves. Mechanics tell you the truth. You never have to drive to another gas station restroom because this one is “just too icky.” Three pairs of shoes are more than enough. The same hairstyle lasts for years. You get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness. Being a woman can be harder. It would be especially hard to be a woman in charge of a dinner party when Jesus is coming.

This dinner party is turning into a nightmare for Martha. She loves Jesus, but he never sticks to a schedule. He pops in all of a sudden, and Martha has to throw a meal together. Somehow she always pulls it off. This time Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for mysterious big doings. Martha is on the spot again. She rushes, fusses, cooks, and cleans. She does so without anyone lifting a finger to help.

Not even Jesus lends a hand in setting the table or pouring the drinks; instead, he has all her other would-be helpers sitting spellbound at his feet, listening to him while the pot roast withers and the salad wilts. Lots of things are bothering Martha. What bothers her most is the way her little sister is acting like a man.

Mary is right in the middle. To sit at someone’s feet is to be that rabbi’s student. Women are not allowed to be students. As people wander through the kitchen, Martha hears them whisper, “Look where Mary is. What is that girl thinking? Mary knows she doesn’t belong there.”

Teaching a woman to read was illegal. Women were viewed as property. The rabbis taught that daughters were a curse and that the purpose of women was to bear sons. Only the man could initiate divorce. Women were excluded from the inner courts in the temple. Men did not speak to their wives in public, and yet Mary is at Jesus’ feet, raising her hand and asking questions. Everyone is thinking the same thing: Mary ought to be in the kitchen.

Everyone except Jesus. Jesus knows the laws against rabbis teaching women, but he breaks those rules. Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman at a well, and his disciples almost have a coronary. Jesus travels with women who support him financially. A friend of mine bravely titled a sermon, “Jesus was a Ladies’ Man.”

When Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to get in her place, Jesus says that she has found her place: “Martha, you worry too much. Only one thing is necessary, one dish, a simple meal, and one place to give your attention.”

If this is not our favorite Bible story, it may be because we are not Martha or Mary. We have no reason to believe that Jesus would say to us what he said to Martha. We do not spend much time in the kitchen. Someone is buying all those toaster pastries and frozen pizzas. We also don’t think that Jesus would commend us as he did Mary. Few of us have learned to sit at Jesus’ feet and be his disciples.

We need to hear this word because, like Martha, we may be guilty of discouraging others from taking a place at Jesus’ feet. The rightful place of women is still an issue. In our society, women are more likely to be exploited or abused. Women are still underpaid, but we do not tend to get upset until it is our wife, daughter, or us. Listening to talk radio or rap music makes it clear that male chauvinism is still in style.

The church has been at the center of arguments for equal rights. For centuries, the church has distorted the gospel and denied the equality of women. The message of the Scriptures on how men and women are to relate to one another is extraordinarily complex, reflecting our experience. A few passages speak negatively toward women in leadership. In one place, Paul says that women in the Corinthian church should remain silent. He also says that women should not braid their hair, preach without their heads covered, wear jewelry, or cut their hair short. Some have drawn from these passages the sweeping conclusion that women should not serve in leadership roles, but we can’t make the Bible say that.

For there are texts of Holy Scripture in which God calls women to ministry. The same Paul who tells women to keep silent assumes that women will preach. Philip’s daughters preach in Caesarea. The word for deacon is used of the woman Phoebe. Women preach and pray in public, head house churches, serve as Paul’s coworkers, and are persecuted and jailed just like men.

In the society of Paul’s day, it was taken for granted that the male was superior to the female, the Jew to the Greek, and the free person to the slave. Paul catches a vision of a kingdom without prejudice—“no Greek nor Jew, no slave nor free, no male nor female in Christ Jesus.”

If we draw our conclusions from the complete witness of Scripture, we understand that God calls women to any ministry God chooses.

We don’t always recognize that the equality of women and men is not a peripheral issue. This concern is about how the Spirit speaks to half the world. If any of us are denied full partnership in the work of the church, then we all miss God’s grace. Any way in which women are treated as second-class people is contrary to the gospel. Those who follow Jesus cannot discriminate.

Like Martha, we get distracted with things other than listening to Jesus and do not see that Jesus calls all of us because we need each other. When we fail to hear the voices of all God’s people, then we fail to hear all that God is saying. We easily miss the gospel’s revolutionary word that we are equal in God’s family.

Jesus says, “Only one thing is necessary. Take a seat at my feet and listen.” Jesus invites us to take our place at a table at which we are equals. We come to the supper together, as sisters and brothers. Jesus offers the bread and cup to all God’s children.

time_for_supper_cvrThis post originally appeared in Time for Supper: Invitations to Christ’s Table by Brett Younger.

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