Ever since I've been familiar with Luke 10:38-42, the lectionary gospel reading for this coming Sunday, I've been very uncomfortable with the way the question arising from the passage usually occurs in sermons: "Are you a Mary or a Martha?" Of course, the question attempts to get at priorities, but it seems unnecessarily reductionist in its dichotomy. It also assumes a static modus operandi which does not seem to take into account the context of the story itself. I'm also uncomfortable with the usually innocuous article "a" in front of both names, as if Mary and Martha are objects rather than subjects.
The obvious overarching point of the passage is that it's a "better" priority to spend time with Jesus, and that's fine as far as it goes. It's obviously true that our busyness and anxiety often get in the way of communion with the Lord. It's not that Martha does not love Jesus. She plainly does, as her "love language" manifests in preparing the house and meal for his presence. Mary and Martha are two distinct individuals offering their love for Jesus in two different ways. I do not think Jesus objects to Martha intention in the passage. Of course, he knows both Mary and Martha love him dearly. But he does say that Mary has "chosen what is better."
It is the hope of most Christ followers and Bible readers that when they read familiar passages, something new might arise in the spirit. I find this fresh reading is often most possible when the scriptures are read and discussed in a group setting. I have the pleasure of attending a weekly lectionary study group for such purposes. In our last meeting, a friend brought up a part of this passage I had never considered, and I was relieved to see the passage from a different, fresh angle.
This friend brought our attention to the unique action of Mary in this passage, particularly in relation to common and expected gender roles of the 1st century CE. At that time, in that cultural and historical place, it was not the custom, nor was it expected, that a woman would sit eye to eye with her Rabbi/Teacher and have a deep heart to heart. This was the domain of maleness. Yet, there is Mary, sitting at the Lord's feet, taking her place as a full disciple. Perhaps Martha thought this presumptuous as she asked - no demanded - that the Lord instruct Mary to help her with the chores. Jesus reply: "Don't be anxious or worry, but just focus on one thing - being with me."
In saying this, Jesus not only raises the importance of relationality and communion and "being with." He also subverts gender norms, allowing Mary (and Martha, if she so chooses), to release the anxiety of gendered performance and societal expectations so she/they can just be with one another. Jesus does not wants actors, fulfilling some heavy role. He just wants to be with us and us to be with him.