Adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, March 20, 2022. Scripture: John 11:1-27; Luke 10:38-42
When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School in the early 1990s, I took a course taught by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, one of the Div School’s more notable faculty members. In line with her scholarly pursuits, the course focused on interpreting New Testament texts through a feminist theological lens. One of the primary modes of interpretation was a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” utilizing skepticism and questioning as a way of exploring and gaining an understanding of what a verse, a passage, a chapter, or a book is trying to say and why—a sort of “reading between the lines” with a keen awareness of context.
Using a hermeneutics of suspicion propels us to ask important questions. Why, for instance, are there New Testament passages that seem to subordinate the status of women while there are others that suggest equality between women and men? How do we understand passages that seem to dismiss the ministry of women when there are stories that indicate that Jesus and even Paul worked closely with women and relied on women to support their ministries, to share the good news and to engage in acts of ministry themselves?
Let’s consider Martha.
For many Christians, Martha is known as the sister of Mary of Bethany, the one in the kitchen preparing a meal for a group of people, including Jesus (Luke 10:38-42). When she goes out to the living room to ask her sister Mary to help her out, she is gently scolded by Jesus who points out that Mary is the one who had chosen the better path. Generation after generation this is the Martha story we know. She is the do-er in the kitchen, the worker bee who doesn’t get much respect, not even from Jesus.
But, there’s another passage, a passage from the Gospel According to John (John 11 and the beginning of John 12) that paints a very different picture of Martha, a picture that offers an image of a very different woman and a very different relationship with Jesus. This story isn’t buried in some noncanonical work that hardly anyone has ever heard of. It’s in the Gospel of John. Right there.
And yet I bet most Christians have no knowledge of John’s version of Martha and therefore, no knowledge of Martha’s affirmation of who Jesus was and is—Martha’s confession.
We should be suspicious about why this is. Why is it that the dominant story of Martha is the one in which she is told that she hasn’t chosen the right path? Why, when we have this other story, a story that not only casts a different perspective on Martha, but offers a narrative that gives us intriguing detail and some plot development?
For the writer of the Gospel of John, the confession that Jesus is the Christ belongs to Martha and only to Martha. There is no other passage in which this statement finds itself on the lips of Peter. Peter is the one who offers the confession in Matthew, Mark and Luke and it is that confession that forms part of the foundation upon which the mightiest of disciples (and then apostles) stands. No one questions the significance of Peter.
And, yet that confession on the lips of Martha has been sidelined and dismissed. We need to be suspicious.
As Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel has written in the Women Around Jesus, regarding Martha’s confrontation of Jesus, in the wake of the death of her brother Lazarus: “Martha is not a woman who keeps silence in the community. She does not leave theology to the theologians. She carries on a vigorous debate. She does not cry, she does not cast herself at Jesus feet, she does not give in. She struggles with God as Job did. She charges Jesus with failure. She does not give up.”
“Jesus responds to Martha’s stubborn, passionate faith that he is no ordinary person with the revelation of himself, “I am the resurrection and the life . . . ,” , and Martha responds with a confession of Christ that stands out as a special climax in the New Testament: “You are Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.”
Importantly and significantly, John places the confession of Christ on the lips of his friend, a woman: Martha.
The author of the Women Around Jesus goes on: “[W]e are discovering that in view of the realities of their experience women can speak of God, of faith, of the fellowship of the Christian life in a different way from the theology and the theologians of many centuries. Women have their own sphere of life and their own experience, in which they come to know God and trace his freedom. God is not just strong, almighty and successful; He is also weak and impotent in the way that women are. Perhaps they are often closer to the reality of the new life, the reality of the resurrection, then men at any rate, the New Testament says clearly that women are at an advantage here: women were the first witnesses to the resurrection: and Martha was the first to experience that Jesus himself is the resurrection.”
Martha has much to teach us. She has much to teach the Church. Among the most important of her lessons: for the Church to be fully about its holy work requires a variety of gifts from a variety of people. To look first at a person’s gender in order to determine the worthiness of gifts is, quite simply, to be unfaithful to the path that Jesus tried very hard to lay out.
It is time for the Church, and its leaders, to recognize the harm that has been done for so long in the sidelining of New Testament women. The harm has been grave indeed—for women and men of faith and for the Church, as it claims to witness to the Good News of Christ.