Memorial of St. Martha
John 11:19-27 or Luke 10:38-42
Was Jesus a feminist? Well, if by feminist you mean one who promotes the equality of or advocates and practices equal treatment of women as human persons and willingly contravenes established social norms in doing so, then the answer would have to be a resounding "Yes!"
Of course I know that Jesus and his contemporaries in first century Palestine would never have used such a term, but scriptural evidence abounds that Jesus’ attitude toward women was certainly in contradistinction to his society’s norms. Last week’s memorial for Mary Magdalene as well as today’s memorial for Martha demonstrate this.
During the time of Jesus women were definitely considered inferior to men. Jewish Rabbis were taught not to engage women in teaching or even to speak to them unless absolutely necessary. Nowhere, outside of the pages of New Testament, do women in this highly patriarchal society seem to have any roles outside of child bearing, housekeeper or temptress. That is why the Gospel passages presented today are so unnerving.
In these as well as other passages Jesus makes women the center of the stories – and not only that – Jesus makes the women figures of wisdom, witnesses to that Kingdom God incarnated in Jesus himself.
In Luke’s gospel we have the portrait of Mary and Martha, prime examples of the importance of hospitality to the Middle Eastern culture in which Jesus lived. Mary, as the iconic wisdom figure, sits at the feet of Jesus to receive his teaching (in itself quite unheard of not being related by blood to Jesus) while poor Martha, whom I have dubbed, the patroness of the Type A personality, scurries about serving and cleaning and cleaning and serving. But while she worked, Martha, like so many other women I know, listened intently to the Master’s teaching. How do I know? John’s portrait of Martha also presented in today’s other gospel selection.
Lazarus dies. Mary, his sister, is overwhelmed with grief. However it is Martha that goes out and meets Jesus. (Remember in observant Jewish homes women in mourning rarely if ever left home.) The dialogue that John records is a rich one.
Martha said: "Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know God will give you whatever you ask for…" Martha’s faith and trust in Jesus and his relationship to the God of Israel must have been immense. "Your brother will rise," Jesus told her. Martha’s response encapsulates that faith and trust: "I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day." Again using Martha as the wisdom figure asks her if she believes that He is the resurrection and the life. And Martha, a mere woman, makes the same statement Peter makes in Matthew’s gospel: "Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world."
Jesus’ interaction with women in the scriptures is a reminder to all of us how to treat our fellow human beings. In God’s kingdom all humans are treated with love, compassion and respect. Not because of their gender, social status or economic worth, but rather because it is inherently who we are as God’s creation. May St. Martha, servant, wisdom figure, and woman, pray that we like her may make our lives a witness to this Christ and this Kingdom value!
Patrick Quinn ([email protected]) is the director of Planned Giving at the Passionist Development Office in Chicago.