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Sunday, February 04, 2007
Too Much & Not Enough
In the dialogue surrounding the Convergence conference, one theme that has come up is the intense pressure we women face to measure up to the ideal. Jamie shared how she doesn’t feel that she fits the stereotype of a Christian woman because she is just “too much.” This is a message we receive a lot as women - that we are too much and not enough all at the same time.

We’re too emotional, too needy, too opinionated, too demanding, we talk too much, we expect too much. And we are also not pretty enough, not thin enough, not educated enough, not accomplished enough, not rich enough, our houses aren’t clean enough, our kids aren’t perfect enough. And apparently this pressure to conform to the standard has been around for a very long time.

In Luke 10, we meet Martha, a wealthy woman who was hosting a dinner party for Jesus and his disciples. While she hurried around with the preparations, her younger sister Mary ignored the demands of entertaining and simply sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to his teaching. In 1st century Jewish culture, it was highly inappropriate for a woman to sit at the feet of a rabbi. Mary was certainly managing to be too much and not enough all at the same time! She was too bold, too forward, too audacious and she was definitely not a good hostess.

Mary didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned about this, but Martha was indignant! While Martha labored so hard to measure up to the standard of her day, Mary simply sat there. So Martha appealed to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to come and help me.” (v. 40) Surely Jesus would help put Mary back in her place! But Jesus lovingly responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by so many things!” (v. 41) Jesus sees the pressure, the anxiety, the burden Martha feels as she tries to be the perfect woman. And he has compassion for her.

But then he continues, “There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (v. 42) According to society’s standards, Mary’s behavior was shocking and disappointing. But Mary doesn’t fail to measure up in the eyes of Jesus, the great liberator of women. According to Jesus, Mary is just exactly enough and not one bit too much.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1


posted by Rachel at 9:40 AM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 2/04/2007 11:09:00 AM, Blogger Lydia

    Good stuff, Rachel.

    I've always felt compassion for Martha in that story - I know what it's like to be left (or to feel like I've been left) with the lion's share of the work.

    Still learning to let go. :)

  • At 2/04/2007 01:53:00 PM, Blogger Irim

    Thought-provoking post, Rachel.

    It's interesting, b/c the Martha-Mary story raises a lot of issues for me. In the Catholic Church, it's always used to prove that the contemplative life is better than the active life - my feeling is "GREAT, we have enclosed nuns praying and nobody trying to make the world better b/c they're too busy gazing up at a guru and not feeding the hungry or teaching the young. Fabulous. NOT."

    I've always been with Martha on this one - Martha was intent on HOSPITALITY for her guests; Mary just sat. Why didn't Mary get up and help Martha? Then they could have *BOTH* sat down at Jesus' feet. I've always seen Mary as selfish for that reason - she prevented her sister from achieving the contemplative life, and took it for herself. She didn't share. And actually, I think it's Martha who would have shocked people with what she *said* to a rabbi.

    What this story really needs to be about is that we all need both the active and the contemplative in our lives, and we need to help eachother achieve that balance.

    Of course, I may just be particularly vitriolic about this story b/c I've heard a bunch of celibate men use it to promote virginity and silence as the ideal state for women...

  • At 2/04/2007 02:53:00 PM, Blogger Jemila Monroe

    I love the post and the comments. I tend to feel there are seasons (within a given day, week, year or decade) when we are called more to serve and wait and listen, to be active, still and expectant. But I think when we live or serve in ANY way out of trying to live up to other people's standards (as opposed to genuine love for others and for ourselves -- and ultimately God,) we are doomed to work futily, achieving only that which is dust.

  • At 2/04/2007 03:00:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    For the interpretation Rachel is refering to see N.T. Wright's Women's Service in the Church where he writes -
    ...the remarkable story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10. Most of us grew up with the line that Martha was the active type and Mary the passive or contemplative type, and that Jesus is simply affirming the importance of both and even the priority of devotion to him. That devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story, but far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East and many other parts of the world to this day would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions. It is as though, in today’s world, you were to invite me to stay in your house and, when it came to bedtime, I were to put up a camp bed in your bedroom. We have our own clear but unstated rules about whose space is which; so did they. And Mary has just flouted them. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so. She is ‘sitting at his feet’; a phrase which doesn’t mean what it would mean today, the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher. As is clear from the use of the phrase elsewhere in the NT (for instance, Paul with Gamaliel), to sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that very practical world you wouldn’t do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself. Like much in the gospels, this story is left cryptic as far as we at least are concerned, but I doubt if any first-century reader would have missed the point. That, no doubt, is part at least of the reason why we find so many women in positions of leadership, initiative and responsibility in the early church; I used to think Romans 16 was the most boring chapter in the letter, and now, as I study the names and think about them, I am struck by how powerfully they indicate the way in which the teaching both of Jesus and of Paul was being worked out in practice.

  • At 2/04/2007 03:19:00 PM, Anonymous Rachel

    Irim, thanks for sharing. I had never heard the story interpreted from that perspective before. I can see how it would be very frustrating to hear the text used to encourage woman to be silent. I believe it should be seen as a message of liberation for women.

    Two thoughts come to my mind about this text. One is that we have to remember that Mary's behavior really was shocking and unacceptable in her society. It was a common saying at the time that it was better to feed the Torah to pigs than teach it to a woman!

    The second thing is that we are given several clues in this and other texts about the Mary, Martha and Lazarus family that indicate that they were quite wealthy. That would have almost certainly meant they had multiple household servants. So I'm not convinced that Martha really didn't have any help. I think she was much more concerned about seeing Mary put back in her proper place so Mary didn't continue her embarrassing behavior.

  • At 2/04/2007 06:52:00 PM, Blogger anne

    Regarding what Irim said, I think we're all called to different expressions of our faith, and I believe we vitally need those contemplatives petitioning heaven on the world's behalf as much as we need those showing the world love in action.

    I see in this story the radical acceptance of women by Christ, and the message to all that the world's busyness will always present a challenge for us and easily drown out the quiet voice of God/Jesus/Spirit if we let it.

  • At 2/04/2007 07:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

    Here is a blog post I wrote 2 years ago on that very subject: http://theiinwe.wordpress.com/2004/05/19/108497324343009200/.
    (kpg - a lurker until now)

  • At 2/04/2007 08:06:00 PM, Anonymous Rachel

    "I raise my cup of coffee to the rest of the women who read this who have been told they are TOO MUCH. I am in good company."

    KPG, I grew up being told by my mother that I was "just too much." So thank you, sister! I raise my cup of coffee to you too!

  • At 2/04/2007 09:56:00 PM, Blogger Amy

    I raise my cup as well, KPG! Welcome!

    I like the concept of the balance in seasons and the value both Mary and Martha added. I do especially like the understanding that when Jesus commends Mary, it is a freedom not known to women.

    Rachel, Galatians 5:1 is one of my favorite. Thanks for sharing.

  • At 2/04/2007 11:23:00 PM, Anonymous Rachel

    It seems like an interesting postscript to this story that later on Mary does something even more shocking and inappropriate and totally impractical (Luke 12). And this time we hear no objections from Martha!


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