Sermon: The women in the Gospel according to Luke

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
17th of July, 2022

Luke 7:36-8:3 and 10:38-42

I am being a bit cheeky this morning. I looked at the four readings the Revised Common Lectionary offered us for today, and decided that only the very short reading from the Gospel according to Luke was in any way speaking to me. Possibly in three years’ time, when the other readings come round again, I will discover their value and be able to offer a helpful reflection from them, but this year they left me cold. So, since the timing of Easter this year meant that we did not hear Luke’s version of the anointing of Jesus, I decided to add that to today’s story of Martha and Mary, and think about the place of women in the Gospel according to Luke. But (shhh!) do not tell anyone I am playing with the Lectionary like this.

Commentators are completely divided on whether Luke’s version of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a positive one for women. At first glance, it would seem so. This gospel has the most references to women of any of the canonical gospels. Luke tells us the nativity story from the point of view of Mary, while Matthew tells it from Joseph’s perspective. (Luke 1:26-38) It is only in the Gospel according to Luke that we hear Mary sing the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56) and we see the interactions between Mary and Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39-45) Luke’s telling often pairs the story of a man with the story of a woman, as in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. (Luke 15:1-10). Luke tells us that the women who provided for Jesus out of their resources, ‘Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others,’ accompanied Jesus to the very foot of the cross, and the empty tomb, making it clear that it is these women who provide the essential ‘chain of evidence’ for Christian claims of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

However, some commentators see the Gospel according to Luke as one in which women lose the leadership that we know from Paul’s letters they held in the early church. We are often shown women acting as disciples, but never see them commissioned to preach or teach. As we will see, some commentators argue that the story of Martha and Mary is propaganda that supports the instruction in the First Letter to Timothy, ‘Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.’ (1 Timothy 2:11-12) If so, this is certainly not a liberating gospel for Christian women.

Luke cannot be blamed for some of the ways in which his version of the gospel has been used against women. Take today’s story of the women who anointed Jesus. Luke’s version is hugely different from that in the other three gospels, which all say that the anointing happened in Bethany just before Jesus’ crucifixion. Luke’s story of a weeping woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair is a story about hospitality, and about the contrast between Simon and the woman. Jesus himself tells us this when he compares their behaviour. Even though Jesus was a guest in Simon’s house, it was the unnamed woman who offered him hospitality. Simon, unsure whether Jesus was a prophet or not, was cautious in the way he treated him. The woman, who knew that Jesus was the one who forgives, was expressive in the extravagance of her love. She is a role model.

Frustratingly, for almost two thousand years the Christian church has said that this sinning, weeping woman of the city was a prostitute. It has been argued, what other sort of woman would both appear at a banquet with unbound hair and be wealthy enough to have expensive ointment? But although male preachers down the centuries used this story to talk about prostitution and women’s propensity for sexual sinning, there is absolutely no evidence in the story that the woman was a prostitute. The woman was a sinner, yes, but we do not know what her sin was. It is obviously not important. What is important is that whatever her sin had been, Jesus had forgiven her and so she showed him great love – as all we forgiven sinners should.

But is this weeping woman really a positive role model? One of my favourite commentators, Bill Loader, writes about this story: ‘As Christianity sought to find a respected place in city life, pressures grew to conform to social standards. Women’s leadership which may well have been very prominent in early house churches fell within the strictures of acceptable patterns. Penitent women were approved, and stooping became the appropriate posture.’ Another commentator writes: ‘The emphasis here is on Jesus’ act of forgiveness rather than on the woman’s actions toward him. This account turns upon a submissively grateful act because of her absolution from an undesignated sin rather than an extravagant act of anointing which is emphasized in the other gospels.’[1] In the other gospels the anointing woman is a prophet; here she is a penitent.

Immediately after this story, Luke tells us about the women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities and who shared their resources with the Jesus movement. Translators are divided on whether these women were providing for ‘them’, meaning the twelve as well as Jesus, or for ‘him’, Jesus alone, because different manuscripts use different words. Either way, these women are the living embodiments of what happens when the Sower in the parable immediately following this summary sows seed in soil that can receive and nurture it. (8:4-15) These women are unusual in that they are not only supporting a rabbi financially, they are also travelling with him. ‘Mary, called Magdalene’, is named first, meaning that Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, introduces her at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry instead of at the cross. This means that when the news of the resurrection is given to ‘Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women’ (Luke 24:10) we know that these women can speak as authentic witnesses of Jesus from the time he was in Galilee, to his death and burial, to the empty tomb and the news of his resurrection. However, unlike the women in the other canonical gospels, they are not commissioned to share the news of the resurrection with others. (Matthew 28:7; Mark 16:7; John 20:17) Luke may be suggesting that the role of women in the early church should be restricted to financially supporting the men.

A painting of three woman in long robes with purple accents, two hooded, one with a halo.

Mary Magdalene, Susanna and Joanna by Janet MacKenzie

Finally we come to the story of Martha and Mary. Only Luke tells this story; Martha and Mary appear in the gospels written by both Luke and John, but their roles in the two gospels are completely different. In the story we hear today there is no mention of a brother Lazarus; unusually and radically Martha is presented as the dominant figure in the household.

There is absolutely no consensus on what this very short story means. Why is Mary’s action of sitting silently at Jesus’ feet praised, while Martha’s practical service is set aside? Mary may be ‘hearing the word’ but Martha is doing exactly what Jesus describes himself as doing at the Last Supper, ‘For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’ (Luke 22:27) How can that be wrong? The story has made numerous women down the centuries angry because it seems to dismiss ‘women’s work,’ the housework and food preparation behind the scenes that allow visiting rabbis to teach their disciples. They are on Martha’s side.

Some commentators suggest that the real problem is not that Mary is not helping Martha; the real problem is that she is behaving like a man. She has settled into the public room of the house among the men, and is sitting at the feet of the teacher as a student. Sitting at the feet of a rabbi was what people who wanted to be rabbis themselves did. I have always read the story this way. Martha’s role, of serving and hospitality did not need defending. It is what women have always done and have always been praised for doing. But Mary is silently asserting her right to study the word of God. Maybe, even though we do not see it here, she does take what she has learned and teach it to others.

An icon of two women on a gold background, one with a red hooded cloak over a white robe, holding a flask of perfume, the other wearing a blue hooded robe over a long white dress, holding a scroll.

Monastery Icon of Sts Mary and Martha of Bethany by the Orthodox Church of America

However, other commentators argue that there is no mention of food preparation and table service in this story. The Greek word Martha uses to describe herself as ‘[doing] all the work’ is diakonein, serving, from which we get the word ‘deacon’. Maybe Martha’s ‘many tasks’ were acts of ministry, and Luke is using the words of Jesus to suggest that women, rather than leading the Christian community like Martha, should sit silently and learn like Mary. While Martha and Jesus interact as equals, host and guest, Mary is obviously Jesus’ subordinate as she sits at his feet.

A third suggestion is that the problem in this story is not the different things that Martha and Mary do, it is that Martha is jealous of her sister and condemns her to Jesus, wanting Jesus to join her in criticising Mary. I will not say any more about that interpretation, because I think the picture book I read earlier, Chloe’s Birthday … and Me by Giselle Potter, said everything I would want to say about sisterly jealousy better than I can. Instead I want to turn to a final interpretation that I think may be the most immediately applicable to us, given that in the Uniting Church we are long past any questions of whether women can learn, minister, and teach.

Martha is not condemned for what she is doing. Despite millennia of interpretation, this is not a story that values the contemplative over the active life. Martha is gently rebuked for being ‘worried and distracted by many things [when] there is need of only one thing’. Maybe this story is about attention, about having a single focus on whatever the one thing we are doing is. We know that we live in a distraction culture; apparently in the USA college students can now only focus on one task for sixty-five seconds, and office workers on average manage only three minutes. Maybe what Jesus is telling us is to focus on the one thing immediately in front of us as we do it, whether that is preparing a meal for a guest, or sitting with that same guest and paying attention to what they are saying. Maybe this is a story about being ‘pure in heart,’ as we translate one of the Beatitudes, having a single focus on whatever it is that we are doing, to do it well and to the glory of God.

So, after all that, is the Gospel according to Luke a positive or a negative one for Christian women? Throughout the millennia it has obviously been both. I do not think I am misreading the gospel to see the women who accompany Jesus and support him out of their resources, Martha who is obviously the head of her household, and Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus in the position of a pupil, as non-conforming women. These women are not the wives and mothers staying at home and caring for their families of whom their society would have approved. In their interactions with Jesus they had obviously found the freedom to live in new ways. In that way they can be models for all of us, of any and all genders, who are called to do something different because we have encountered Jesus, or even to continue to do what we were already doing, but to do it without anxiety and with a single, pure, heart.

If we follow the women Luke portrays in this way, all of us will choose the better part and it will not be taken away from us. Amen.

[1] Rev. Jean Rodenbough, Presbytery of Salem and past President, NC Council of Churches, Greensboro.

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