A Woman’s Place Is… Where?
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
July 22, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on July 21, 2019 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Genesis 18:1-10; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:24-28; and Luke 10:38-42.

Luke is considered the gospel of women, because Jesus interacts with many more women in it than in the other three gospels. Today’s gospel passage about Jesus’ visit with Martha and Mary is one of the best-known passages unique to Luke that is about women. The passage inspires the title of scripture scholar Barbara Reid, O. P.’s book called Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke. 

Dr. Reid begins her chapter on today’s passage by declaring, “the tensions imbedded in this story raise more questions and interpretive problems than any other Lukan text involving women.” 1 One of my scripture professors went as far as to call this passage a “text of terror,” a term used in theological circles to describe stories that expose the misogyny of patriarchal biblical cultures. 2

So today, we’re going to take a deep dive into questions about the ministerial roles that laypeople – especially women – can serve in the Church. Before we wrestle with the passage, let’s celebrate God’s mercy on us. 

Most of the homilies I’ve heard on this passage seem either to miss the point, or to reach conclusions in conflict with what we know about Jesus and his teachings. After hearing a story that may or may not have patriarchal overtones, we usually hear a Catholic homily given by a man to a congregation that is often more than 50% female. 

So, let’s look at what this passage does not teach us, according to the research done by theologian Barbara Reid. (Again, the online version of this homily will have lots of footnotes for those who’d like to learn more.) The point of the story of Martha and Mary, according to Reid, is not that contemplation is more important than action. 3 Nor is it a commentary to counteract the emphasis on action in the preceding Parable of the Good Samaritan. 4 Nor is Jesus’ treatment of women in this passage ground-breaking from practices in the Jewish and Hellenistic cultures of his time and place. 5 Nor did Jesus think that Martha was making things too complicated with an extravagant meal. 6

From several different strands of the early Christian tradition that have reached us, it seems clear that it was Martha, more than Mary, who was a leader in the early Christian community. When Jesus comes to Bethany in the Gospel of John, Mary stays at home while Martha comes out and declares, “You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Even though Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale uses “Martha” as a pejorative term for servants, the name “Martha” in Aramaic is actually the feminine equivalent of “lord.” The Greek word for Martha’s serving is diakkonia, the same verb Luke uses throughout the Acts of the Apostles for describing Christian leadership. Christian art from various time periods portrays Martha as a woman of deep faith, conviction, and responsibility. 7 

Dr. Reid points out that the New Testament is inconsistent in its position on women in Church leadership roles: Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians includes both Paul’s applauding women who prophesy in the assembly (11:4-5) and his admonishing them to stay silent (14:34). [8. Ibid., p. 155.] Feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza argues that a similar tension played out in the transmission of this story: what actually happened when Jesus visited Martha and Mary, and is it different from what has been handed down to us by Luke’s community? 8

While we often think of the early Church as being patriarchal, it was also radically inclusive. Mary Magdalene was the first person to see and proclaim Christ’s resurrection. Lydia, Priscilla, and Phoebe were leaders and collaborators with Paul. Lucy and Agnes were revered for refusing to be used as objects by powerful men. 

Today, we still debate the nature of the Church – how patriarchal is it, and how inclusive is it? Does an exclusively male hierarchy prevent the Body of Christ, which is at least 50% female, from fully considering the dignity of women? Can the Church hierarchy credibly comment on the experiences of motherhood, the clergy abuse scandal, and the #MeToo movement, for example?

Twenty-five years ago, Pope John Paul II declared that the debate about women’s ordination to the priesthood was closed. 9 Although this teaching was not declared infallible, Pope Francis also considers the question to be closed. 

Many Catholics in the United States find this frustrating, as they think that women should be ordained. (When I mention my own opinions at Mass, people are quick to report what I say to Bishop Vasquez.) But let’s remember that the vast majority of Catholics are impoverished people living in the southern hemisphere, who are concerned much more about poverty, health, climate change, and justice than about women’s ordination. (Ironically, longitudinal studies indicate that governments better address issues related to poverty, health, climate change, and justice when women take leadership roles.)

But short of women’s ordination, there clearly are a lot of ways that the Church could expand the ministerial opportunities for women. Bit by bit, things have been changing. For example, Vatican II was the first ecumenical council with women in attendance. Since then, many women have received advanced theology degrees. Twice a month when I was in college in Rochester, New York, I had the privilege of hearing the person whom Bishop Clark 10 considered to be the best preacher in the Diocese of Rochester: Sr. Marie Susanne Hoffman, SSJ. 11 12 

While the ministry of bishop is restricted to the ordained, three of the most important positions in any typical U.S. diocese can be held by laypeople: chancellor, CFO, and superintendent of schools. Four years ago, Crux magazine reported that fully one-third of these positions around the country are held by women, even though approximately one out of every six dioceses in the country has no women in any of the three positions. 13 Here in Austin, both the CFO and the superintendent are women: Mary Beth Koenig and Misty Poe. And let’s not forget that our own parishioner, Jennifer Allmon, is the executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops!

While Pope Francis has stated that women should take on more important roles in church ministry, his track record has not been consistent. In 2015, a religious brother became the first layperson to vote at a Bishops’ Synod, but the three religious sisters invited to be there were not allowed to vote. At the Vatican summit on clerical sexual abuse in February of this year, the most powerful speaker to the assembly of presidents of bishops’ conferences around the world was Veronica Openibo, S. H. C. J., a religious sister from Nigeria. Just this month, Pope Francis named the first seven women to serve in the historically all-male Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

We may never understand what actually happened in Martha’s household when Jesus came to visit, or what the meaning of Jesus’ words were. However, even if Jesus restricted the role of Martha in the moment, he allowed Mary freedom in her choice of roles. Today in the Church, especially as we attempt to eradicate the worst of clerical culture, perhaps the next best step isn’t to demand radical changes, but to continually ask: 

  • Who isn’t in the room when important decisions are being made in the Church?
  • What are the reasons that other voices aren’t involved in the decision?
  • In this day and age, do those reasons still make sense?
  1. Barbara Reid, Choosing the Better Part? Women in the Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), p. 144.
  2. Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 1.
  3. Reid, pp. 144-145.
  4. Ibid, pp. 147-149.
  5. Ibid., pp. 149-154.
  6. Ibid., pp. 145-147.
  7. Ibid., pp. 159-161.
  8. Ibid., p. 154.
  9. John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Published 22 May 1994.
  10. From “A Fire In the Thornbush,” Matthew Clark’s first pastoral letter in 1982 as Bishop of Rochester: Many women have also demonstrated that they have the gift of inspired preaching, that they can explain the Word of God in a way so moving that it reaches the minds and hearts of their hearers and hereby strengthens their faith.”
  11. Even a decade ago, there were still several dioceses that allowed women to preach on a regular basis. For more on interpretations about whether Church regulations allow women to preach, see https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/simply-spirit/why-are-we-silencing-women-and-lay-preachers. Accessed 17 July 2019.
  12. Sue’s reflection, “What do we bury in fear?” is included in Extraordinary Preaching: Twenty Homilies by Roman Catholic Women (San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, 1996).
  13. https://cruxnow.com/church/2015/05/14/women-us-catholic-dioceses-leadership-data/. Accessed on 17 July 2019.