On their way Yeshua and his disciples came to a village where a woman named Marta welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister called Miryam who also sat at the Lord’s feet and heard what he had to say. 40 But Marta was busy with all the work to be done; so, going up to him, she said, “Sir, don’t you care that my sister has been leaving me to do all the work by myself?” 41 However, the Lord answered her, “Marta, Marta, you are fretting and worrying about so many things! 42 But there is only one thing that is essential. Miryam has chosen the right thing, and it won’t be taken away from her.”
This is a story which reflects the ministry of Jesus, who scandalously accepted women as disciples. It was scandalous enough that he had women helpers, but recognising them as disciples made him unique as a rabbi. Greeks now, they occasionally admitted hetaerai, cultured female companions, to their symposia, but they were viewed as immoral heathens. There are of course many example of female leadership in the Hebrew Scriptures, from Eve, Sarai, Miriam and Deborah down to Esther. But the Pharisees and their successors, the Rabbis, did not see these as reasons to recognise a role for women in teaching or making legal rulings.
It is clear that Miryam adopts the role of a disciple. The Greek word used for sitting at Jesus’ feet is almost a technical term for discipleship. It is also clear that Jesus did not ask her to do this; she decided for herself. That forwardness more than anything else prompts her sisters appeal to Jesus that Miryam should be reminded of her traditional role as helper, Greek diakonos, the word Luke uses to describe what Martha is doing.
This relates the incident to life in the Christian assemblies of Luke’s time where the distinction between helpers/ carers and apostles/ emissaries was important as we can see from Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. The way Luke tells this story makes two points:
- Whatever special roles are recognised in the assembly of Jesus, one thing is essential for all: listening to Jesus and learning from him.
- Women are just as capable listeners and therefore leaders, as men.
Obviously the mainstream churches did not interpret this story in this way over the centuries, preferring to side with the prevailing patriarchal practices of the Mediterranean societies. One of the justifications for this bias was the biblical witness to the Twelve, who were all men. They deduced that Jesus only appointed men as his disciples. That’s a confusion. Doubtless the twelve men existed and may have been appointed by Jesus as those who should gather the twelve tribes of the new people of God. But obviously he had many more than twelve disciples.This story tells the reader that some of them were women.
Paul clearly recognised that male and female roles were abolished because men and women were one in Messiah Jesus. One can see in his contradictory rulings about women, for example that they should be silent in the assembly of belivers, how he was torn away from this gospel truth by the pressure of societal customs which he had shared.
After all this time however the male domination of the Catholic and Orthodox churches is a scandal that should be brought persistently to their attention by their partners in the world church. Is a priesthood that excludes women valid in the eyes of Christ?
This story suggests that it is not.