Sermon: Leave Martha Alone: Women like her insured the Early Church’s survival
Year C, Proper 11: Luke 10:38-42
(This sermon is dedicated to the Marthas of Chicago Grace Episcopal Church: Doreen Baker and Kim Callis.)
“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” (Luke 10:42).
I will never forgive Luke for not recording Martha’s response to what Jesus said. I’m sure she had one. And I’m just as sure that her response wasn’t submissive, subservient, or even polite. In fact, I imagine her saying “Fine, Mary can stay put. You can help me feed all of these men you’ve dragged into my house,” and dragging Jesus off to the kitchen.
I also don’t like the way Luke marginalized women like Martha in this story. Martha usually takes a lot of slack for her homemaking skills, but the truth is this: Martha’s skills in the home were instrumental in the establishment of the church and giving the church a foothold in the wider Greco-Roman society.
Martha was not the only busy homemaker in the The New Testament. In fact the New Testament names many busy women who hosted churches in their home. Here are a few:
- Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12-17)
- Lydia (Acts 16:11-15)
- Priscilla (Romans 16:3, 1 Corinthians 16:19, 2 Timothy 4:19)
- Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11)
- Nympha (Colossians 4:15)
- The Elect Lady that the Second Letter of John is addressed to.
During its infancy years the church met in members’ homes. In order for there to be enough room for the church to meet, the home had to be a decent size, which meant the owners of these homes had money. They were rich. We see this with Lydia: she was a merchant, and had her own household with slaves. She was a rich businesswoman. In Luke 10 Martha is preparing a meal for Jesus and his 12 disciples, minimum. Remember normally more than just the 12 were traveling with Jesus. In order to accommodate this many people Martha, Mary, and Lazarus had to be rich. Martha was used to running a large house.
What did a rich woman running her household look like? What did she do? What were her duties? Socrates gives us a glimpse of what duties Roman matrons, like Martha, performed in their home in his book Economics: “Supervision of all comings and goings in the house, protection and distribution of supplies, supervision of weaving and food production, care of sick slaves, instruction [of] slaves in household skills, rewarding and punishing slaves, in short independent management of an entire household (7.36-43). She is to be the guardian of its laws, like a military commander, a city councilor, or a queen…” (A Woman’s Place, 146).
Matrons like Martha were powerful women. She was not only responsible for everything that went on in her home and estate, she also set an example by working with her servants and slaves. Matrons spun wool and flax, wove, and prepared food. In Greek and Roman literature writers and poets pictured the ideal Roman matron as one who wove cloth and clothed her family with her own hands.
According to the literature of the time the matron of the household operated independently of her husband, and the husband liked it that way. The matron was the queen of her domain.
In their book A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Chrisitianity, Carolyn Osiek and Margaret MacDonald write: “It is surprising how much responsibility is expected of wives: total management of household resources, personnel, and production–quite a different picture from the passive image of the wife in the New Testament household codes. This literature gives us insight into how wives and hence widows were perfectly used to being independent household managers and how men expected them be just that” (p. 152).
The household was a woman’s place. So what does that mean for the early church that met in these women’s spaces where women were expected to be the leaders and managers?
It means the members of the churches that met during the time of the New Testament would not have thought twice about women being leaders in their services. Osiek and MacDonald also point out that it would not be unusual for a woman to preside over the love feast and communion during this time because meals fell under the domain of the woman in the house. It would not be unusual for the matron of the house to preside over the meal.
There are also women like Mary, Nympha, Lydia, and Chloe who are not linked with husbands, which meant they hosted the love feasts in their homes and presided over communion. According to Osiek and MacDonald “Women were expected to independently manage their households, with or without a husband. Therefore, to step into a Christian house church was to step into women’s world” (p. 163).
A typical Roman meal also included discussions on philosophy, along with teaching. Most of the teaching and preaching that happened in the early church probably happened around the table while everyone was eating, and the matron of the household presided over it all making sure everything ran smoothly.
So what does any of this have to do with Martha?
In the Christian tradition Martha started it. Martha hosted the first church in her home. Jesus and however many disciples were following him at that time found shelter and food in Martha’s home. Jesus taught in her home, and he ate in her home. Martha was the first hostess of the church.
There is one more thing about Martha that gets overlooked. For that we have to jump over to John 11. In John we again meet Martha, and she is not happy. She had sent a message to Jesus that her brother Lazarus was sick, and asked him to come and heal him. Jesus waited until Lazarus was dead before he set off for Bethany. Martha met Jesus on the road and accused him of letting Lazarus die. But in her anger and grief, she still believed that God would do what Jesus asked. When Jesus asked her if she believed that he was the resurrection and life her answer was: “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27).
In John Martha made the confession that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, not Peter. In John, Martha’s confession is the rock the church is built on. So my question is this: Pope Martha anyone? In John God revealed to Martha what flesh and blood had not, and she is indeed blessed for proclaiming the faith that is the rock on which the church is built. Not only did Martha make that confession of faith, but her home became a meeting place for the early church. Not all apostles and “popes” traveled to proclaim Christ crucified and risen, some of them stayed put and offered the hospitality and protection of their homes for the beginning Christian movement.
The early church depended on matrons, like Martha, to provide an organized, well-run home for them to meet in. It was the matron who made sure the meal was ready and presided over the meal and all that happened during it. Jesus may have discounted Martha’s worries over the meal. May be Martha did allow herself to be distracted by too many things. But the early church gives a different testimony about Martha, her duties, and her worries. Without women like Martha efficiently running large, rich households there would be no church.