This month on June 4th, we commemorate the feast of St Mary, one of the many Marys in the Bible and Orthodox Church tradition (so many they are often confused one for the other.) But this particular Mary was the sister of Martha and Lazarus who all lived together in a stone house in Bethany that Jesus would often visit. We all should know the parable by now, of how on one of Jesus’ visits to their house, Martha and Mary were getting things ready for the table, but Mary chose to stop and listen to Jesus preach sitting down at his feet, while Martha, stressed out with so much to do, turned to the Lord to rebuke her for not helping out. Instead of criticizing Mary as Martha thought He would, He turned the tables and castigated Martha for being busy about so many things and reminding her that her sister Mary had taken the better part. Now most explications of this story see it as a parable between work and faith, embodied in the two sisters Martha and Mary respectively, but thanks to Eva Catafygiotu Topping in the chapter devoted to the saint in her book Saints and Sisterhood, we have arrived at a different feminist reading of the story.
Mary was both younger and lesser in status than her hyper older sister. According to the tradition of those times, it was Mary’s lot to serve and act as hostess for guests who came to the house. So in that episode when Jesus comes over and she sits at his feet and listens to what he was saying, she was engaged in an act of radical defiance. First, the phrase “to sit at someone’s feet” means “to study with that person.” So basically Mary had dropped what she was doing, the conventional role allotted to her as a woman by her society and her sister, so that she could become a disciple so that she could get an education at the feet of the greatest teacher of all time. It was unheard of for a woman to become a disciple of any religion let alone get a basic education. Jewish rabbis did not have female disciples as their customs forbade it. For a humble girl from a village to claim a male privilege for herself was radical.
In addition, Mary’s gesture serves as a radical step of personal defiance. It was her sister, another woman, who was putting the pressure on her to conform to the norms set out for her—the kitchen and the table. She viewed Mary her little sister as a deserter, someone who was skipping out of her responsibilities with the pots and pans. Martha had the conventions of female domesticity more firmly implanted in her head and was trying to enforce them on Mary. But what a surprise! The radical teacher turned the tables and rebuked her for fussing over unimportant things. He praised Mary for having chosen the better part and “it shall not be taken away from her.” With these words Jesus rejected the stereotype accepted by Martha. The domestic sphere was not the only “place” for women; he accepted her into his circle asserting that the intellectual and spiritual life was even more proper a place for women as it was for men. Ahhh! Don’t you just love Jesus! (He too was a feminist.)
I read this story as depicting the choices women have and take. Women have the right to make choices first of all. That Jesus affirmed Mary’s right to choose for herself shows how pro-woman He was. That two sisters chose two different lines of work, so to speak, one by sitting down and the other by running around serving and cleaning up, shows that in life we can choose to serve the body and the other physical needs people have or to the soul, our own and others. Ultimately, whoever chooses spirit over body will be the one with greater rewards. And in this choice, one sister, the older with more clout, pressures the other into doing what society expects her, limiting her potential. (It is sad that sometimes our so-called sisters, those closest to us, put the most restrictions on us and keep us from making our own decisions.) In the end, both sisters get into heaven; both lines of work can bring fulfillment.
Mary’s simple act of sitting down and listening, far from being passive and unproductive, served as a radical call to action. In her passive sitting down, she signaled women’s spiritual and legal right to gain an education and defied the strict standards of domesticity relegated to women.