The contrast between the role of women in today’s Genesis passage and our Lucan pericope is striking.
Many scholars believe the Yahwistic source of Genesis - from which our reading is taken - was written by a woman. Perhaps that’s why the author “tells it like it was.” Abraham and the “three men” are the narrative’s four main characters. Sarah is simply behind the scene (or the tent flap) during the entire passage. Of course, she, like all women, is doing most of the work, enabling her husband to provide hospitality to the three strangers - who eventually reveal themselves as Yahweh in human form. Though a few verses beyond today’s liturgical selection, Sarah is given some lines, her presence is heard, not seen. She’s a woman of her 1,800 century BCE day and age.
The situation is quite different in our gospel pericope. In some sense, Martha is the passage’s Sarah. She initially welcomes the Jerusalem-bound Jesus into her home. Then she disappears into “the tent,” emerging only to seek Jesus’ help in forcing her sister to join her in her womanly role. “. . . My sister has left me by myself to do the serving. Tell her to help me!”
Mary stepped out of her culturally-accepted barriers, doing something women of that day and age would have been ostracized for doing. “She . . . sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.”
Scholars presume if some in Luke’s audience hadn’t been criticizing the uppity, role-shattering Christian women in their community, this Martha/Mary story never would have been included in the third evangelist’s gospel. If Luke is the gospel writer most favorable to women, it can only be because his readers had the most problems with women’s expanded roles in the church.
Mary does what only men of that culture were permitted to do, and, predictably, is criticized by someone comfortable in her traditional role. Luke’s Jesus basically tells Martha to look beyond her culture-imposed limits and see life from a different perspective. “There is need of only one thing,” he tells Martha. “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”
The Colossians author provides us with the early Christian theology fueling this radical breaking of moulds. Our basic mystery of faith is “Christ in you.” “It is he,” the author writes, “whom we proclaim, admonishing everyone and teaching everyone . . . that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”
In this context, we only achieve Christian perfection when all followers of Jesus perfectly mirror the risen Jesus - the Jesus who has broken through all the restrictions which limit human beings. Instead of caving in to such restrictions, other Christs are constantly going beyond them.
Thankfully our religious culture has changed drastically since my student days. Some of the profs who taught us seminarians in the morning, spent an equal amount of time in the afternoon teaching the same subjects to religious women (at a different location). When I once suggested we all just study together and reduce the teachers’ work load, a classmate quickly interrupted me. “You don’t want to study with nuns. I did before I came here. They wreak havoc with the curve! When they’re around, you really have to study.”
Could gender competition be one of the reasons we still have men/women issues in the church today? There must be some problem, else, following the scriptural rule, I wouldn’t have made it the subject of this commentary.