Martha and Mary – 18 July 2022
Here are Mary and Martha as you might not have seen them before.
Mary is on the right. She is concerned about herself, her vanity revealed through the mirror that she is holding. Martha, on the left, has approached her, causing her to turn her head, although not her body. The two sisters are staring intently at each other, eye to eye. Martha points her sister towards Mary, a gesture gently reproachful. With her other hand she suggest an alternative. Mary might turn from her concern for herself towards another way of living.
Images like this one have the generic title – ‘the conversion of Mary’. This subject arose in art, and in preaching, because of the long-standing confusion/conflation of Mary of Magdalene with the Mary of Bethany. So, before Mary comes to sit at the feet of Jesus, she is converted (turned to Christ) by her sister Martha. Martha then is understood to be an evangelist. The word for ‘service’ used to describe Martha’s many tasks in the passage of Luke’s gospel, is the same word used to describe the service/ministry of the deacon/evangelists that Luke describes in the Acts of the Apostles.
The picture is entitled ‘Martha reproves her sister Mary’, 1620, and is by Orazio Gentileschi. It is strongly influenced by a similar picture by Caravaggio, who was a friend of Gentileschi.
And it came to pass, in their going on, that he entered into a certain village, and a certain woman, by name Martha, did receive him into her house, and she had also a sister, called Mary, who also, having seated herself beside the feet of Jesus, was hearing the word, and Martha was distracted about much serving, and having stood by him, she said, `Sir, dost thou not care that my sister left me alone to serve? say then to her, that she may partake along with me.’ And Jesus answering said to her, `Martha, Martha, thou art anxious and disquieted about many things, but of one thing there is need, and Mary the good part did choose, that shall not be taken away from her.’
Luke 10:38-42, Young’s Literal Translation
Too often, preaching about this text pits the ‘good’ sister against the ‘bad sister’. However, a closer reading of the text can lead to a reading where Mary and Martha, though arguing in this moment, are equal partners in ministry. Many ancient manuscripts have an ‘also’: that ‘Martha had a sister Mary who also sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying’. With the ‘also’, both Mary and Martha listened to Jesus and followed him.
Ashley M Wilcox, The Woman’s Lectionary