Today on my morning bike ride into work to listened to Pulpit Fiction’s commentary on this Sunday’s lectionary, Amos 8:1-12 and Luke 10:38-42. I loved Revs Rob McCoy and Will Green’s emphasis on the choice of tone with which we can read the Gospel. We can choose to read “Martha, Martha,” in a pastoral rather than condemning tone, highlighting Jesus’s loving invitation that she too take a moment to put down her endless work, and join her sister Mary to sit and learn. This reading recognizes the compassion fatigue from which we all need to take a rest, and does not pit Mary vs. Martha as is too often the way this text is interpreted. It is a reading that affirms that there are unique ministries that we need at particular times: someone needs to create the space, the home, in which we then need to sit and learn together.
And then, they switch gears (at 10:45), and declare that this story is not a feminist text.
I was flabbergasted, then mad. The only way that this text is not in clear service of feminism is if you don’t share feminist values (as many interpreters have done over the centuries), or if you are just not paying attention to the context of the world around us.
[Full disclosure: I cut off my loud and colorful commentary because I felt like a priest in a collar yelling at her phone on a bike might send a bad message.]
In the past, Pulpit Fiction has read this as a feminist text (see their notes from past episodes on this text). Unfortunately, Christian feminist reading often utilizes a well-intentioned by deeply anti-Jewish methodology of pitting Jesus the liberating feminist against Jewish misogyny. The Revs. Rob and Will are right about this. Citing Jane D. Schaberg and Sharon H. Ringe from The Women’s Bible Commentary and Amy-Jill Levine, Rev Rob notes that there was no rule that women could not sit at the feet of teachers and learn. Rev Rob quotes Levine, “women received and gave instruction in synagogues, homes, patronage capacities, and personal conversations.” Pitting Jesus against Judaism fails both the substance of Jesus’ message as a Jew who teaches in a manner that echoes the prophets (like Amos) who preceded him. Judith Plaskow pointed out over 30 years ago that pitting of Christianity against Judaism undermines the hard work Jewish women are doing to use their tradition to challenge sexism within their tradition. These exegetes are right, Christians must question texts that denigrate Jews and Judaism, and either stop using them, or exegete them very differently that we have done over the last two thousand years. Full stop.
Except not quite full stop.
The Revs Rob and Will then take a turn that these feminist interpreters do not take. Rev Rob is clear, Jesus is a feminist and has a liberating message. But, he says, we shouldn’t read that into this story. This story is not a feminist text.
Rev. Will followed up this declaration with a warning that our tendency to read particular political perspectives and movements into scripture is “chronological malfeasance.” Feminism as a movement didn’t exist when Jesus was alive. So while we can attribute Jesus’ values, principals, ethics, values and movements through the world as those that reflect what we would call feminist values, Jesus wasn’t a feminist because feminism didn’t exist in that era. When we are reading scripture, we need to read it with multiple hats, one of which is from the 21st century, another of which is the original context.
Yet this text portrays women as engaging in a full range of ministry. Here, women engage in both diakonia, service that creates the space for teaching and learning, and teaching and learning. The authors of The Women’s Bible Commentary and Amy Jill-Levine explicitly highlight the ways in which this story makes clear the full range of women’s capabilities. The correction to anti-Jewish readings of this text, and the affirmation that women had opportunities to learn and teach within Judaism, does not make this an non-feminist text! Further, these exegetes do not dismiss feminism as merely “political.”Rather, their interpretation demands a more complex reading of scripture, one which recognizes both the capability and freedom of women to teach and lead (Deborah, Judith, Esther) but also enforced their vulnerability through unjust systems of marriage and inheritance. It demands that we ask hard questions: why, when scripture has plenty of examples of capable women exercising the full range of human gifts that enable the liberating and flourishing of communities, do the Jewish and Christian traditions still insist on the diminishing women and their gifts? Why, when this story shows two women exercising the varying ministries that we all need at different times in our individual and communal lives, has so much of Christian practice denied this variety to women?
My sense is that the Revs Rob and Will read these cautionary interpretations, acknowledged the importance of their message to reject anti-jewish interpretations and sought to emphasize that in their podcast, but then failed to fully integrate them into the fuller context of the system in which we live. Their failure to integrate this anti-anti-Jewish reading of this passage turned this podcast into a problematic dismissal of this texts crucial support for the liberative values that feminism, womanism, any female-oriented liberation movement, seek. They pitted against one another the resistance to anti-judaism and the resistance to sexism.
They neglected to make any mention of the systems in which we live, systems where women remain particularly vulnerable to violence of male family members, and to economic structures that do not value their work — whether that work is the same as their male counterparts, or the ‘traditional’ female work of giving care to children, families, and the vulnerable. Take any statistic of vulnerability and dependence, and women still have it worse than men. Disaggregate that statistic by race, and women of color are even more vulnerable and unprotected in our systems. The Church has more often than not been an enforcer of these fundamental inequities. Elevating diakonia, the almost exclusive role allowed women in the Church and the societies it has shaped, without acknowledging that for centuries women have been denied formal diaconal recognition, much less other teaching and leadership roles, ignores the importance of this passage for women in the church. Declaring feminism merely a “political” movement and reminding us that Jesus wasn’t a feminist because feminism as a movement didn’t exist then is a pedantic dismissal of the way this story undermines the sexist traditions of the Church.
How ironic then, that their subsequent interpretation of Amos emphasized liberative God that demand that we check our systems. Amos rails against the political system, the king of Israel, that is visiting injustice upon its people. Political systems are put in place to regulate and enforce our social and economic priorities and values. That is all politics is, the way we regulate the social. And all biblical prophets care deeply about the social, and therefore the political. After all, who exactly do they think Amos was preaching against if not the oppressive political system in place, a system that was beginning to look more like Egypt than a nation of liberation. Amos reminds us that the good news of God is political because it challenges the political systems that institutionalize the unjust use of power.
Only those who benefit from the system view the Gospel as not political. Those who experience injustice know that the Gospel challenges all politics of oppression and repression, and so cannot help but be political.
The Revs Rob and Will highlight that Amos warns “Israel” not to become “Egypt.” It is so easy, they remind us, for a people freed from slavery to become the enslavers. “Check your systems” they say. Make sure your systems aren’t doing what was done to you. Amen.
My brother clergy, before you publicly declare as white men that a text isn’t feminist, please, check your system. When the church, and the society in which the church finds itself, isn’t sexist, when we can’t remember a time that women were denied the freedom to sit at Jesus’ feet as learners and teachers, then you can ignore the feminism of this text. Until then, the story of Mary and Martha serves as a beautiful Jewish illustration of deeply feminist values: a community of God where all, including women too often excluded despite the witness of scripture to the breadth of their capabilities and call, are able to exercise the various ministries that are needed, when they are needed.
Image Credit: JESUS MAFA. Martha and Mary, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48311 [retrieved July 13, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).
Thank you for this careful analysis of the multiple readings of this often misused text of sisters. We must regularly deconstruct the systems of biblical interpretation that determine our meaning making, which often privileges one set of voices over another. Reading our ancient texts with attention to race, class, sexuality, ethnicity and religious position will help unmask hidden power structures also. Gender roles and empowering women is only one way to reimagine the kin-dom of God.