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Martha misunderstood? Reclaiming Biblical women for today

05 September 2022

Lucy is a writer, broadcaster and Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly in Central London. She has been a professional soprano and Canon Precentor of St Paul’s Cathedral, the first woman to be appointed there. Lucy’s article is based on Chapter 36 of her recently published book: Reading the Bible with your Feet (Canterbury Press, 2021)

<strong>Martha misunderstood? Reclaiming Biblical women for today </strong>

I was taking a workshop not long ago for a mixed audience of women and men – a mixture of people from church and non-church contexts. I asked them to say what came into their head when they heard the phrase ‘Christian woman’. There was quite a silence. Nothing good obviously I thought.

After a while, someone said, ‘The Queen.’

Then they got going: Ann Widdecombe, Dot Cotton from East Enders, Brittany Spears when she was young and took a virginity vow, but not anymore. Some remembered the young lesbian character Sophie from Coronation Street, others the vicar of Dibley or Janet from The Archers.

Several of these, I pointed out, didn’t actually exist. Could they think of actual Christian women?

Mother Theresa then made an appearance, as did the art critic Sister Wendy. A white audience had come up with all white women, quite a number of whom were fictional and most over 70. As a snapshot of, perhaps European twenty-first-century Christianity, which has not yet many prominent female leaders of the profile, say, of the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury, and for an ageing Church of England collection of congregations, maybe this wasn’t too surprising. A Black majority or more mixed audience may have come up earlier with other names associated with the Civil Rights movement, such as Coretta King perhaps. The intersectionality of invisibility was on display here.

With this audience, we then talked about what they thought of the phrase ‘Christian woman’, and pejorative descriptions emerged: bossy, probably quite kind but in a judgemental sort of way, a bit dumpy, maybe quite practical but ultimately bland.

This conversation was instructive because preachers don’t preach in a vacuum. We preach from pulpits within communities that are living with all of these preconceptions and fixed images of women in religion. And while the preaching of women in Scripture has certainly changed over my preaching lifetime (now in 2022 it’s 27 ordained years), there are still too many sermons that lock up the Biblical women in a secondary and still-passive role, essentially all from the standpoint of the male characters and how brave Jesus was in talking to, let alone touching in public, women, in a patriarchal society. I will never forget a fantastic evening one night in Jerusalem with five women Christian ministers and five Rabbis: we had a hilarious evening and meal, swapping stories of leading congregations and preaching. And the mantra repeated through the evening was that whenever any of the Christian ministers started complaining about the way women were portrayed in the New Testament or in the Church itself, one of the rabbis would laugh and say ‘you’ve only had 2,000 years of this. We’ve had 8,000! Come back and tell us then!’ which would trigger another round of clapping and laughing, and energetic companionship.

There is a wariness often in imposing a feminist or womanist viewpoint onto the experience of an unnamed woman in the gospels, which leads to so many caveats the woman herself in Scripture can get lost. Preachers of any gender can sometimes internalize, if we’re not careful, some of these stereotypes or the self-limiting beliefs we ourselves carry around, and not allow the gospel of liberation to speak as strongly as it can. What’s more, in 2022, preachers are preaching in the light of the Me Too movement, the Time’s Up campaign, the equal pay controversies and often very fractious debates between the relative roles of cis-gendered women, trans rights and what being a woman means to any of them.

I guess what I’m saying is that, along with other ‘themes’ that emerge from the gospels, one of our tendencies as preachers is to find our angle and stick with it, to the detriment of the creative gospel, but to stick with it out of fear of getting something wrong or inadvertently causing offence. The responsibility is clear for any of us who dare to climb those pulpit steps or move to that lectern to speak publicly about matters of faith, but my own prayer is that I don’t let that sense of responsibility crush us and keep us too safe. Churches aren’t the only places to have pulpits. Boats have pulpits, often at the front. And it’s from the pulpit on a boat that a person will lean out as far as they can to drop the anchor more deeply into the ocean. I pray that as a preacher, I lean out as far as I dare from the pulpit in order to drop the anchor more deeply into the ocean, for me and for the people with whom I share the space of preaching.

By way of illustration, I’d like to explore briefly in this article, one Gospel woman and perhaps unlock her from her one-dimensional interpretation, to see what she might mean for a contemporary congregation.

You know the story. From Luke’s gospel chapter 10. Martha’s cross because she’s doing the work while Mary sits meekly and listens to what Jesus is saying. This little family – Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus – live at Bethany, a small village just outside Jerusalem. By all accounts, Jesus was really very friendly with them – visiting them often. When Lazarus died, Jesus was distraught, as John’s gospel tells us. And this little vignette of their life and Jesus’ visit has become famous over the years for Martha getting told off by Jesus. She has got stuck there over the years and often from preachers, historically exclusively male of course, but now even from female preachers, whenever we preach from that historic perspective, she gets a bad press.

For any who like art, there is a wonderful picture of this scene in the National Gallery in London. It’s ‘Christ in the house of Martha and Mary’ by the Spanish seventeenth-century painter Diego Velasquez. Mary is sitting with her long blond hair rather wanly in the background listening to Jesus talking. Martha is in the foreground with forearms that wouldn’t be out of place in a professional rugby team, hacking the heads off fish. She looks utterly furious.

And so she is locked into this story as the one who got told off for being too busy. In church conversations, we can get so fixed on this aspect of Martha that women sometimes say, ‘I’m a Martha not a Mary’, rather negatively describing themselves as more practical, active in a way that Jesus disapproved of. Of course, there’s wise teaching here from Jesus about not allowing ourselves to be fundamentally distracted by our ‘many tasks’ that we forget to pray, but that’s true of women and men alike. The fundamental problem is one that is repeated over and over again when we hear, read, and preach Scripture. We have allowed Martha to become ossified, stuck, one-dimensional. Whereas in fact, she is one of the most inspiring, holistically described characters of them all.

What else do we know about Martha? We know that when her brother dies, she is furious with Jesus for staying where he was for two days. She leaves her seemingly more placid sister in the village and goes out to meet Jesus before he gets there. And what she says to him there is, in some ways, terrible. ‘If you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died’ (John 11.21). It’s raw, honest and emotional. Martha is an example of how to address Christ in prayer, how to tell the truth about the most precious, the most painful parts of our lives and our experience. In this story about Martha, I find a courageous woman, able to tell Christ the unvarnished truth about her life. She doesn’t dress it up or make it sound better than it is. In this exchange, she lets out her grief and distress, just as the psalms would have taught her to do.

When Jesus comes to the grave of her brother, and orders the stone to be rolled away, Martha is thoroughly practical. The body has been there for four days and so she protests that this is a very bad idea. She confronts Jesus publicly. In front of the crowd, she is challenging, fearless, prophetic. Because she names what is stinking.

Sometimes, like Martha, we are called to say out loud what is stinking. To stand up with people who are voiceless or suffering; not to be afraid of the crowd and their murmuring. Martha names in public what is stinking and sometimes, so should we.

And right in the middle of John’s gospel, there is the most remarkable exchange between Jesus and Martha. Because this is yet another side of Martha. She contemplates Jesus and confesses that she believes. This is Martha filled with faith, and contemplative energy, saying what she believes about God to God. And her confession of Jesus as Messiah, is very different from the more famous one which is Peter’s. Peter says almost exactly the same thing – and then immediately gets into a fight with Jesus which results in Jesus saying, Get behind me Satan. No such tussle with Martha. She is steady, truthful, strong. This is Martha the contemplative theologian.

In discerning our own vocation to preaching, perhaps then we can take from the example of Martha and Christ, a set of questions:

Where do you think you might be a bit stuck, like Martha, in a one-dimensional view of yourself, and what are those other talents, strengths, abilities and characteristics that could be set free? Where is it that you discern the crowd are murmuring for you to keep quiet? How honest are you in your prayers to God? Do you protect God from your griefs and furies or, like Martha, do you let God have it face to face?

Preachers preach under the authority of Scripture, and in the power of the Spirit who blows where she wills.

Martha is much more than the woman who was cross about doing the washing up. Whoever we are, but I have to say especially women, we’re often as preachers expert at honing, guarding and protecting our own self-limiting beliefs. The tramlines of interpretation that we learned maybe many years ago and are afraid to digress from. These self-limiting beliefs are fed by, shored up by, enforced by sometimes, societal, cultural or church expectations rooted in male-centric teaching of Scripture sometimes too.

But the gospel according to Martha, is that our vocations as preachers and Christians are holistic, engaging all of us; our emotion, our practicality, our intellect, our prophetic courage when needed.

I am often still nervous as a preacher. These days not usually debilitatingly so, but still nervous. I never forget that women are still unable to preach in many many places, and that being a publicly religious woman is still, even for the majority of the 2 billion Christians in the world, unknown and not allowed. Therefore, I don’t want to do the same to the Gospel women as religious communities do to contemporary women, which is to deny them their own voice. I pray that as preachers, all of us, women, men and everyone else too, will become ever more adventurous, curious, courageous, never afraid of expressing our emotions or stretching our intellect, never afraid to be thoroughly practical and never afraid to look around us in society and name what is stinking.

We can hear this good news for Martha because it’s good news for us. And we preach it as good news not just for women but for the whole world.

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