The Hidden Surprise in the Story of Mary and Martha

Luke 10:38-42 contains a famous narrative involving Jesus, Mary, and Martha. This story is often used to talk about priorities; usually saying something to the effect that we should not be distracted with tasks (like Martha) and miss out on being with Jesus (like Mary). While this is true, there is more to the story. There is a “shock” or surprise in the story that Luke wanted us to see!

Before disclosing what really is going on in the passage, let’s unveil the kind of context that is key here: cultural context.

Let’s acknowledge that everything (literally everything!) is culturally mediated. This means that every truth we adhere to or communicate is filtered through a cultural lens.

The truth at the heart of any biblical passage is able to be transferred and applied to us today, but we have to understand the meaning of any passage through the cultural milieu it is preserved in. For this moment, simply understand that we cannot escape everything being communicated through cultural context, but we can learn to understand the cultural context of the speaker, and understand our own context, and then build a bridge between the two. 

Let’s consider a modern example. Let’s say you lived in a third-world country with no connection to anything going on in America. If someone asked you if you ever hoped to see the “Super Bowl” you might be confused. You might even picture a really big bowl! But that is missing the point because the Super Bowl is something that is understood in a social and cultural context. Everything from the idioms we say (like “it’s raining cats and dogs”) to the events we participate in involves a culturally conditioned communication lens. 

So, what does all of this have to do with Jesus’s interaction with Mary and Martha?

Let’s look at the passage.

38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, NIV)

Consider the Jewish context of the passage. Why would the underlined part be significant? You see, in the Jewish world of the first century, it was only the men who would be a disciple of a Rabbi.

Now, you might be asking yourself: “Where does he see the word ‘disciple’? It only says she sat at the Lord’s feet and was listening to what he said.” Exactly! That could accurately be interpreted as: “Mary was posturing herself as a disciple before the Lord.”

Paul even refers to himself in a similar way when he said he was trained “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). 

Most people would have sat in chairs, but disciples (if their Rabbi was present) would sit at their Rabbi’s feet. It was a posture of humility and even was a way of declaring to those around them that this person is who you are learning from. Luke brilliantly captures Mary’s posture in this part of the narrative. This was what made Mary’s action so shocking to Martha and even the men around her! It was going against the cultural norms of the day. Yet, Jesus seemed to have received her. And that is not surprising. We know Jesus had women disciples and there were even women apostles (e.g. Junia is referred to as an “apostle” in Romans 16:7). Nevertheless, this was an astounding feature of Jesus’s ministry. That is why Luke records Jesus saying: “Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken from her.”

Mary’s desire to be a disciple will not be robbed by the imperfect cultural norms of the day.

Fascinating! And traversing the cultural context aided in our comprehension of the passage. 

If these sorts of insights interest you, then we highly recommend you go through Newbreak’s course How to Study the Bible, and there you’ll also receive a resource guide with suggested books and resources that’ll help you uncover more that is beneath the surface of Scripture. We hope to see you there!

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