Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
July 21, 2019
There was a beautiful moment right after the U.S. Women’s National Team had won the world cup a couple weeks ago where they walked over to the pitch in front of a huge section where Team U.S.A. fans were seats. The team waved and clapped and thanked the fans for their support throughout the tournament. After a few moments, the crowds cheering and clapping coalesced into a unified chant: “Equal pay, equal pay, equal pay.”
This chant comes in response to the fact that the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team earns far more than the U.S. Women’s team, despite the fact that the women perform far better than the men’s team, heaping up trophies and accolades, while the men’s team failed to even qualify for the last men’s world cup. The women’s players earn just 38% of what the men earn. And the women have filed suit seeking to remedy this gross discrepancy.
Upon returning to the U.S. and having a world cup ceremony here stateside, fans interrupted the President of the U.S. Soccer Federations remarks with chants of “pay them, pay them, pay them,” and then later, again, “equal pay.” The team members are surprised and smile with delight, and then, seeming to rein themselves in try, poorly, to conceal their smiles.
This is one of the highest profile examples of what we know and what research has shown to be an all too common inequity in the way that women are compensated compared to men. Beyond that, though, recent focus has been brought to what has been called the “emotional and mental load” that many women carry. Things like who is going to run errands, who asks the questions to check in on how the relationship is doing, in a relationship who assumes who is doing certain chores or how do they get divvied up. Often (at least in heterosexual marriages) women have an extra emotional workload on top that many men take for granted, myself included sometimes. Definitely not perfect at this.
When we get this depiction of Martha working and working and working away to provide hospitality to an unexpected guest, all while Mary just sits there? The weight of that extra load she is carrying, and to feel like she is on her own, she is very relatable in how she responds. She is indignant and is seeking a remedy for the injustice she feels at being the only one working in the kitchen, let alone having the energy to think through what needs to get done, what will we eat, when will it be ready, do we have all the ingredients we need given that this impromptu hosting got sprung on us.
At the very least Mary could share some of the actual workload, if not the mental/emotional labor that goes into it.
So for Martha, Jesus’ response must have felt like a slap in the face. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
When you work so hard at something, only to have it devalued in this way, that is a hard blow. We can probably all relate this to some point in our lives or another—whether or not it has to do with kitchen work or chores. Most recently for me this has come in the form of trying to get Bjorn and Gabriel to eat dinner. I would cook up something delicious only to have them refuse to eat it or declare: “I don’t like that.” Often it would be a meal they had gobbled down just last week! I would feel so wounded and frustrated that the energy I spent preparing a nutritious and
savory meal was just rejected outright. I’ve had to let go of that, and hey, they are a 3 year old and a 1 year old. But Jesus is a full grown adult man. For him to respond to Martha’s request for help in the kitchen can’t be chalked up to his age or just a matter of being a picky eater.
Boiled down to a(n) (over)simplified form, this story can be taken as Jesus’ reminder to us to tend to our souls, give ourselves rest, let ourselves read and pray and find sabbath times rather than having to work, work, work non-stop. In commending Mary, Jesus highlight her choice to take care of her own well-being—spiritual, emotional, and physical. It does put the chores and anxieties we each feel burdened by at times into perspective. Jesus is reminding Martha that the worries and distractions she has buzzing around her head like a cloud of gnats can be put on pause. This can be a helpful reminder to us too.
But Martha is also upset at the injustice of working alone on the many tasks of hospitality. Why does Mary get to sit while I grind my fingers to the bone, working myself to exhaustion and certainly to frustration. It is not fair. Everyone wants to throw a party, but no one wants to do
The deeper reading of what Jesus is doing here is that he is inviting Mary, and implicitly Martha, into the public space. Normally, male disciples would gather at the feet of their rabbi for teaching and instruction, while women were in the background, preparing and serving food, refilling drinks, seeing to the many details of decorum that surrounded ancient hospitality practices. There was a segregation of roles based on sex. Mary negated that cultural expectation, entering a public space that would have been reserved for men. And Jesus affirms Mary in that, throwing out the gendered expectations like last week’s leftovers.
Jesus is essentially proclaiming that women belong in the discipleship circle. They ought to have a voice in the public discussions and dialogues that take place. Women ought to have full access to education in teaching spaces. We can only wonder what Jesus’ male disciples might have made of all this. Though they are mentioned in the introduction as “entering a certain village,” Martha is said to have welcomed “him” [Jesus] into her home. The male disciples may have been present; we just don’t know. I like to imagine them there, flabbergasted and not daring to raise the question.
The openness of Jesus’ call to discipleship subverted the expected gender roles. Jesus’ words to Martha are not meant as a chastisement of her tending to real, logistical details. That dichotomy between house work and spiritual work is our modern day overlay and is anachronistic to the reality of those times. Jesus’ words to Martha are, functionally, an invitation to ditch the confining, oppressive, claustrophobic role expected of women and to be fully human, fully herself, use her voice, be seen and heard. It is a bit like a tactic I know teachers use in the classroom—rather than call out those students NOT doing what they are supposed to do, you highlight the ones who ARE doing what they are supposed to do. “I like the way that Amaya is sitting quietly at her desk. I can tell that Jonathan is ready for our next lesson because his pencil is out and desk is cleared. … I like the way Mary is claiming her full dignity and humanity as a woman by entering into a space traditionally reserved for men.”
Undoubtedly, there is still a struggle against the patriarchal structures that confine women to certain roles and expectations (and to be honest, patriarchy demands certain behaviors and conformities to men too, though not nearly as much as women). So our calling as Christians, if we are to follow in the path of Jesus, is to ensure that womxn (and gender non-conforming folkx) have access to the full range of rights and opportunities as cisgender men do. We follow Jesus when we celebrate the accomplishments and ideas of women fully. We follow Jesus when womxn are given equal opportunity to lead, speak, determine their own path in life and make their own decisions about what is best for them. We follow Jesus when we give up the expectations that womxn should do domestic chores, or that there are certain domains that are naturally suited to any particular gender.
We don’t know how this scene concludes with Martha and Mary and Jesus. In a way, this frees us to use our theological imagination. I like to imagine that Martha left the chores and the worries and the “distractions” and came and sat at Jesus’ feet. I like to picture her and Martha and Mary dialoguing about the Kin-dom of God, soaking up some parables, learning and conversing as disciples in their own right. And I like to picture that after a long while, however improbable it might be, Jesus and Mary get up to go with Martha to tackle whatever dishes or chores are left to do. Amen.