Women as Jesus’ Disciples

The readings for Sunday, July 17, 2016, Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Genesis 18:1-10a; Colossians 1:24-28; and Luke 10:34-42.

Jesus visits his friends, Martha and Mary. Luke writes, “As they went on their way, Jesus enters a village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary … .”  Martha is the dominant figure in this family. This is probably a clue to her importance in the early Christian Community. “She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the feet of the Lord and listened to his message.” Two quite different personalities are obvious. Martha is a doer. Mary is a sitter. In later development of commenting on this story, some commentators saw the differing personalities of the two sisters as models of the active and the contemplative life for vowed religious. Nothing wrong with that, but Luke knew nothing about future development of monasticism. Nor would he have known orders of nuns engaged in activities outside their monasteries, while others led a hidden life of prayer within monasteries. “Sitting at the feet” of a teacher indicated a form of discipleship. In Acts 22:3, Paul notes how he sat at the feet of his great scribal teacher Gamaliel.

However Luke already gave readers an example of a more active discipleship than that of Mary. In Luke 8:2-3, the author mentions several women “who were with Jesus.” This phrase is an expression of discipleship in early Christianity, as we see in Mark 3:14; 5:18. Luke says of these women of Galilee, “and many others,” that they “provided for them out of their means.” Martha of our story would fit better into such active discipleship. Martha’s brand of discipleship is not rejected. Luke’s Greek refers to her work, her serving, as diakonia, which was already in Luke’s time a term for Christian ministry. Jerome (early 5th century) correctly translates Martha’s diakonia into Latin as ministerium (ministry). The Lucan Jesus seems to prefer Mary’s brand of discipleship, as he says in answer to Martha’s complaint about her sister leaving all the diakonia to her, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” One thinks instinctively of Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” But bread too (for some, gluten free) is necessary for life!

One may object that Jesus said in reference to Martha’s anxiety about many things, “only one thing is needful.” Was he implying that Martha’s work was not needful? Not likely. Better to understand the “one thing needful” as a suggestion for simplicity. Could Jesus have been suggesting a one-pot meal, a casserole? Interpretation: the context into which Luke places this story suggests the catechesis he intended. Recall that Jesus & Co. are on a journey to the cross. It is a difficult journey into which Luke places difficult material. In the previous story, last Sunday’s Gospel, we were taught that even outsiders, “those people” — the despised Samaritans, can be disciples of Jesus, and are welcome in the Christian Community.

What about women? Why would the Gospels of Luke and John repeatedly give important roles to women? The Mother of Jesus, Elizabeth, Anna the prophetess in the temple, the woman of Samaria, the women from Galilee, Martha and Mary, Mary of Magdala, the women at the empty tomb — the first to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus in our Gospels. What was behind this Christian outreach to women by including so many stories of women, plus many examples of their importance in Luke’s Acts of Apostles? In the latter document the Mother of Jesus is central to the Christian community awaiting the Holy Spirit, 1:14. Other women in Acts of Apostles: women gathered with Mary and other disciples in prayer, 1:14; etc.; Deacon Philip’s four daughters who were prophetesses, 21:9.

Why so many women included? Luke is a catechist. He would have known the male chauvinism of his time. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament enlightens us (under the entry gune (woman). Flavius Josephus, first century Jewish general and historian, “A woman is inferior to her husband in all things.” Philo, earlier contemporary of Jesus, “Among us, the attitude of man is informed by reason, of women — by sensuality.” Hillel, great scribe and older contemporary of Jesus, “Many women, much witchcraft.” Although we do not know the exact time of origin, there are many other derogatory statements about women in rabbinical literature.” Jesus, Luke, John, Peter, even Paul, in their outreach to women give the lie to this disgusting nonsense common to their time. Yes, says Luke’s story, women are true disciples of Jesus.