38 When they were walking he went into some village. Some woman, (by name: Martha) welcomed him into her house. 39 To this woman there was a sister; (she was called Mariam). She was seated at the feet of haShem; she kept hearing his argument. 40 Martha was pulled around by much deaconing. She stopped, she said: HaShem, it does not matter to you that my sister abandoned only me to deacon. Speak to her therefore so that she take hold with me. 41 He answered, he said to her, haShem did: Martha Martha you are thinking earnestly on and making an uproar on many things. 42 One is a necessity. Mariam chose the virtuous portion, which will not be taken away from her.
A few words about my translation: first, I render Martha’s sister as “Mariam.” That’s just because that’s her name in the Greek. Why do we usually read it as “Mary?” That’s a good question. Second, and more important, you will be accustomed to seeing Martha bustling about, consumed by much serving. In my translation, she is “deaconing.” That’s not exactly an English word, but it catches something important about the Greek original. The word for Martha’s activity is διακονίαν. If you were to sound it out, you would pronounce it “dia-ko-ni-an.” You can hear the word “deacon” in there, which makes sense, since that is the origin of the word. It can refer to “serving,” but more properly it refers to the work of a deacon in the early Christian movement. A deacon was responsible for connecting need with resource: if a person was out of work, the deacon was responsible to find them someone who was hiring; if a family was short on food or had lost their home, the deacon would connect them with someone with food, or a room they could share.
In this scene, Martha is deaconing, which could involve connecting need with resource (though the storyteller gives us no hints about the need, unless it involves Jesus’ teaching, though this seems a stretch). Deaconing could also simply involve enacting hospitality (which, after all, always connects need with resource, since guests need to be welcomed). This latter sense seems more likely in this scene, since the storyteller mentions that Martha welcomed Jesus into her house. (Note, in passing, that Martha owns the house, which gives her substance in the community, and makes her responsible to take care of the needs of visitors.)
So Martha is acting out hospitality for her guest. And Mariam is not. Mariam is studying at the feet of a teacher, in this case, Jesus. This is important: Jews have several basic responsibilities in life. One is to extend hospitality to people in need. Martha is doing that. Another basic responsibility is to find a friend to study with (read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen for a glimpse of this). Mariam is doing that. She is studying with Jesus. Perhaps Jesus is her teacher. That is tempting, especially for Christians who are accustomed to thinking of Jesus as Teacher and Master and Lord. Maybe that is how we are to read this story. But it is also possible that Jesus in this scene is the friend Mariam has found to study with. Jesus is her friend.
This actually fits with the way Mariam and Martha are presented in the gospels. These women are characters in their own right, independent and strong and (see the gospel of John) quite willing to challenge Jesus. That matters for how you assess Mariam’s activity in this scene. She is sitting at Jesus’ feet. That is a place for a student to sit. She listens, and keeps listening. That is a good thing for a student to do. The storyteller lets us know that she is listening to Jesus’s λόγον. Sometimes this is translated as his “word.” The NRSV translates it as “what he was saying.” Both of these translations work, more or less, because logos is linked with words, especially in translations of the gospel of John.
But λόγον is also linked with logic, and that matters, especially in a scene that involves teaching. I teach for a living. If all that happens during a class period is that I tell people stuff, that’s not teaching, and they don’t need me in the room for such a low-level activity. They could look all of that up. Wikipedia would do just fine. Teaching is not about telling people stuff, it is about thinking, arguing, exploring. At the least, I owe the people who come into the classroom a glimpse of how an educated person explores, critiques, and wonders about the material we are studying. At the least.
What I work for as a teacher are those occasions when students join the exploration. What I really want is for students to challenge me, to engage the material on their own. A proper lecture is one that gives students a reason and an opportunity to push back. A proper teacher crafts her teaching so that this happens.
I think Jesus was a proper teacher. I think Mariam was a proper student. I think she sits at his feet, listens to his logic, and challenges the way he has put things together. That is what it means to have found a friend to study Torah with. Study is not submissive or passive. Study requires a very particular kind of friendship, one that hopes for deep challenges that might lead to basic rethinking of everything.
That is what it means to choose the “virtuous portion.” Most translations tells us Mariam chose the “better” part, but this implies that study (traditionally figured as a male activity) is better than hospitality (often read by interpreters as woman’s work). Such a translation has obvious problems, but it also misses the point of the Greek. The word in question, ἀγαθὴν, does not mean “better.” There are perfectly good Greek words that render the idea of comparative good. This word means “honorable,” or “virtuous.” It refers to human excellence.
In this very Jewish scene, human excellence is expressed in the drive to learn something deeply, to engage another person in order to think more deeply together than either could think alone. This expresses human excellence because it makes it clear that one of the reasons for practicing hospitality is to welcome strangers who just might be able to teach you something. Every guest is an honored teacher.
But that means that BOTH Martha and Mariam are practicing hospitality in this little scene. Both are welcoming a guest into their home. Both are honoring the guest’s distinctiveness. And, especially if Mariam is indeed examining Jesus’s logic, not just dully absorbing his word(s), Mariam is giving Jesus the honor any proper teacher hopes for, works for, and values above all others. She is thinking with him.