Jesus was an itinerant teacher with disciples—what we might today call student interns—who traveled with him to hear what he taught. He and his followers subsisted on donations. There were twelve disciples, all men, but also a number of women who traveled with him and helped support them from their own means. When Jesus entered a village with his retinue of followers, he would often go to the house of the first person to offer to put him up. Sometimes other citizens in the village would invite him and his followers to dinner. It was no small task to prepare for such a party.
The Gospel of Luke gives us a glimpse into what it may have been like to entertain Jesus and his followers. He came to a village where two sisters, Martha and Mary, opened their home to him. While Martha busied herself with preparations for dinner and making sure there were adequate accommodations for everyone—whatever the first century equivalent was of making sure there were clean guest towels in all the lavatories and that the beds had fresh sheets—Mary joined the men sitting at the feet of Jesus to hear him teach.
This by itself may not have been unusual despite the break with Jewish tradition. The Jews of Jesus’ day, and indeed even well into the 20th century, did not provide an education to girls and women beyond what was needed to manage a household and raise children. Most rabbis would not have allowed a woman to join their seminar. But Jesus was not most rabbis, and there is evidence from other gospel stories that he accorded women unusual respect and treated them as persons. So it is possible that Mary was not the only woman joining the men in Jesus’ seminar.
Martha, however, was not happy with what was happening. I can almost picture her working hard to get everything ready and inwardly beginning to seethe that her sister was doing nothing, just sitting on her ass when there was so much to be done. Finally, her anger built enough to overcome her reluctance to interrupt the Teacher, and she approached him about it. “Sir,” she says, “don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.”
Luke doesn’t tell us whether Martha had already spoken to Mary and been rebuffed, but there is certainly an implication that Mary would have done whatever Jesus told her to do. Mary had chosen learning from the Teacher over acts of service for him and his party. Jesus had the power to refocus her attention on what she ought to be doing. In appealing to Jesus, Martha was asking the one person who could best compel Mary to do her duty—as Martha saw it.
Jesus responds by repeating Martha’s name as if to make sure he has her full attention. The name appears to come from an Aramaic word meaning “lady, mistress,” the feminine form of a word meaning “master.” So Martha, the mistress of the household, is behaving in accordance with her role as denoted by her name. “You have a lot of concerns,” Jesus tells her, “but few things are really necessary. In fact, only one. What Mary has chosen is good, and neither you nor anyone else is going to take her choice away from her.”
This, I think, is extraordinary. Jesus not only refuses to make Mary help, he affirms her choice to be a student, a disciple, instead of doing the work Martha—and by extension the broader society—saw as her duty. He validates her choice and by implication her autonomy in making it. Mary does not have to do as she is told. She can instead do as she likes.