By Sarah Morrison
Staff Writer for The Daily Grace Co.
I love listening to music from the mid 20th century era, particularly when the mundanity of administrative work is upon me. Earbuds in, plodding away at the keys at my old job, I listened to Ray Charles croon about his woman. She’s good to him. She gives him money. She’s his friend. It’s all catchy enough—kitschy and cute. Then the line drops, “Never runnin’ in the streets/ leavin’ me alone/ she knows a woman’s place/ is right there, now, in her home.” His voice may be sweet as honey and his pianoing may be hypnotic, but his message suddenly turned nasty to me. Bitter and borderline foul.
Let me be clear: housework, wife-work, mothering—these things are highly valuable, and constitute work that glorifies God. There is no distinction or hierarchy in God’s eyes nor my own that discriminates the tireless work of motherhood or the diligent work of hospitable homemaking as not good or Kingdom-edifying—they absolutely are. In the Christian life, good, edifying, exhorting conversation can (and I daresay should) be happening around a dinner table, with food to fill the stomach, and the Word of God to fill the soul, all the while children make a joyful noise in the background.
However, I don’t get the impression that this is what Ray Charles was speaking about in his song. The insinuation in this set of lyrics is that classic message that women are sandwich makers. His message is that it is improper for a woman to participate in the ‘real world.’ And I argue that this isn’t Biblical. Not one bit.
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Martha and Mary had two different approaches to where the appropriate place for a woman might be. Martha worked earnestly to prepare her home and make sure it was fit for the King of Kings. I don’t feel it’s a stretch to say that she overworked herself, likely obsessing over cleanliness, concerning herself with the proper meals. The preparations overwhelmed her. Suddenly, she lost sight of her Guest and instead fixated on the tasks around her. She was blinded to realized that hospitality that doesn’t focus on Jesus Christ is trifling.
Martha was attending to the “women’s work.” I’m sure Ray Charles would have praised her. In fact, I’m sure most men would have praised her. She was an officer of full bellies, a herald of hospitality. But Jesus Christ is a far cry from “most men.” His gaze isn’t peering over His divine shoulder, ensuring that the kitchen is immaculate, and the food is on its way. Martha thought she was in the center of a woman’s place. But she was sorely, awfully mistaken.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
When Martha became irritated by the fact that her sister wasn’t helping her, she bursts out at Jesus, pleading that He would redirect her wayward sister into that oh-so-famous woman’s work. Perhaps she could do the dishes. Prepare the table. Bear the burden of hosting. But Jesus didn’t redirect Mary. He didn’t chastise Mary. He didn’t tell Mary that the proper place for a woman was elsewhere. Instead, He gave two reminders to Martha: this is not the time to be upset nor worried, and there is only one thing she needs. The things that weighed so heavily on Martha’s mind were grains of rice compared to the glory that was in her living room, but she was too consumed by her own perception of what women’s work was to fix her gaze toward the Holy One. She only needed a few things—nay, she only needed One. And she forsook her true need for a clean home and a full table.
Christ redirected Martha’s heart, and does so with tenderness. Almost saying, “remember the woman you felt was so lazy, so improper, so inappropriate? She is doing the one thing that matters. She is doing true woman’s work. She is learning from me.” Mary chose what was better than housework. Mary chose Jesus. Mary knew that the woman’s place was at the feet of God, learning from Him.
“and it will not be taken away from her”.
Martha spent her time with perishable things. The food would soon be eaten. The serving ware would be dirtied and then again promptly cleaned. The floors would still need to be swept again tomorrow. The work she caught herself up in would never truly be done—it’s an endless cycle. A cycle that isn’t sustained because it deals with earthly, perishable things.
But what Mary involved herself with would not and could not be taken from her. Where Martha only had work begetting more work and perishing, Mary drank of the abundant life of Jesus Christ. Mary saturated herself in the words that Jesus spoke, she learned directly from God. We have access to this divine knowledge in our Bibles. The Word of God is imperishable. It cannot be taken away. It cannot be snatched nor stolen. It is life-giving, soul-reviving, nectar to our spirit. Mary chose the better thing—she chose God.
I come to you as a childless woman, someone who has a rather quiet home, who tries to be hospitable as possible to her church family. I know many of us are in different circumstances, and I know that there might be some of you out there who feel discouraged by the idea of throwing caution to the wind, forsaking housework, and reading your Bibles instead. But please don’t let my ineptitude of motherhood or a busy life draw you away from the truth that God is best, that Jesus is needed above anything. My incompetence doesn’t negate that fact that time spent with Jesus is never for nothing.
A woman’s place is at the feet of Jesus. I don’t know what the intricacies of that might look like to you, but I can assure you that the most satisfying place for any woman to be is learning from the God who sent His Son to die for her out of His abundant love and compassion. A woman’s place is before the throne of God Himself. He is the One worth learning from. He is far more valuable that a clean house or a four-course meals.