Picture it: Cairo, Egypt, during Ramadan 1986. I was on assignment for MARYKNOLL magazine. A Muslim family hosted us for a few days.
Despite having to fast during the daylight hours of their holy month, Ramadan, yet knowing we were Catholics, our hosts prepared a delicious meal for us—and watched as we ate. Hospitality remains a priority in the Middle East, no less today than in the time of Jesus. As was expected, the women did all the cooking, serving and cleaning; the men kept us company with conversation.
My, how things haven’t changed. In the 2,000 years since Jesus walked this earth as a man, you’d think old social stereotypes would have given way long ago to new understandings of just what the place of women is in society. The Gospel shows Jesus challenging and upsetting traditional roles and expectations, never more clearly than when he visited the home of his good friends, Mary and Martha, in Bethany (Luke 10:38–42).
Having to host Jesus and provide hospitality to him and his band of 12 hungry disciples would have been a handful for the two sisters. But when Mary left her sister with all the work in the kitchen to go sit at Jesus’ feet, that was too much for Martha. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” Martha asked Jesus, and then added, “Tell her to help me.”
Interesting. Instead of quietly pulling her sister aside, Martha tries to shame her—and Jesus. “Do you not care …?” Mary had forgotten her place and overstepped her bounds. A woman’s place was to serve. Sitting at the feet of Jesus was a privilege reserved for disciples, i.e., men. But Jesus defended Mary’s right to break out of society’s restrictions, and he chided Martha: “You worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed … Mary has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.”
I sympathize with Martha. Her resentment is as understandable as it is unfortunate. A more enlightened approach would have been for her to see how much her sister longed to listen to Jesus and to say, “Hey, Sis, I got this. You go listen to our Lord.” And what if, upon seeing Martha suddenly overburdened, one of the men had gotten up to help her? Ah, but our human nature instinctively resists change. What’s more, it is so difficult to relinquish positions of privilege.
Sitting at the Master’s feet is what disciples do. It is the “better part,” and as such, Jesus does not restrict it to just men.
Yet, Jesus also challenges men—and women—to eschew positions of power and willingly, ungrudgingly, serve. After all, there is still work to be done and service to render. Thus he, as Master, rises from his place at the Last Supper and assumes the role of servant to wash his disciples’ feet and he commands them to wash one another’s feet (John 13:14).
So even as Jesus accepts women as disciples, he challenges all his disciples to serve. Lessons heard vs. lessons learned.
Featured Image: Maryknoll Sister Dora Nuetzi serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion during Mass at the congregation’s center house in Maryknoll, N.Y. (CNS/G. Shemitz)