“Mary . . . sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching.”
This story of Mary and Martha is commonly used to preach that a life of contemplation is equally as valuable as a life of active service. While that may be true, that’s almost certainly not the point of this episode. If we were to have lived in the first century Eastern Mediterranean culture, we would have found this story profoundly unsettling. There are two points that would offend us. First, women’s world was not in the company of unrelated males. They were in a separate sphere which, among other things, served the men (thus Martha’s “help me with the serving”).
Second, we would have understood “sat at the Lord’s feet” to mean that Mary was a student who had been accepted as such by Jesus. Proper rabbis didn’t do that. They had male students, not female. No wonder Jesus offended the sensibilities of the cultural-religious establishment. Scholars are agreed that Paul also had many women co-workers and that he depended upon them, not for KP duty, but for the work of evangelizing and leading communities.
What happened? For reasons of culture, or politics, or expediency, the early Church ultimately abandoned this component of its diverse and highly exploratory beginnings. But, while the practice is suppressed, the memory is not. The Spirit preserves it in this story, just as the Spirit preserved the steadfast monotheism of the Old Testament, despite the constant back-sliding into idol worship of pre-Exilic Israel. Ultimately, as we know, monotheism prevailed, but only after the painful exile in Babylon. Perhaps the Church of the third millennium will discover the half of its origins it seems to have forgotten after we work our way through the exile of the current “crisis” in vocations.
By Robert P. Heaney