The Life and Times of First-Century Christians
“Workers at Home”
“Now as they were going their way he entered into a certain village. Here a certain woman named Martha received him as guest into the house. This woman also had a sister called Mary, who, however, sat down at the feet of the Lord and kept listening to his word. Martha, on the other hand, was distracted with attending to many duties. So, she came near and said: ‘Lord, does it not matter to you that my sister has left me alone to attend to things? Tell her, therefore, to join in helping me.’ In answer the Lord said to her: ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and disturbed about many things. A few things, though, are needed, or just one. For her part, Mary chose the good portion, and it will not be taken away from her.’”
MARTHA was obviously a hardworking woman. No doubt, she was highly regarded by others. A woman’s worth, according to first-century Jewish tradition, was measured by her devotion to domestic chores and her ability to minister to the needs of her family.
Christian women living in the first century were also encouraged to be “workers at home.” (Titus 2:5) But they had the added privilege and responsibility to teach others about their Christian faith. (Matthew 28:19, 20; Acts 2:18) What were some of the “many duties” that a Jewish woman living in the first century had to care for? And what lesson can we learn from Jesus’ words about Mary?
“Attending to Many Duties” A Jewish housewife’s day began early, likely before sunrise. (Proverbs 31:15) After preparing a simple meal of porridge for her family, she might escort her sons to synagogue school. Her daughters would stay at home to be taught the skills required to become capable wives.
Together, the mother and her daughters would begin the day by caring for basic household chores
Later in the morning, the mother and her daughters might head to the local marketplace. There, her senses beset by the spice-laden air, raucous calls of animals, and shouts of shoppers haggling over prices, she would buy supplies for the day (8). Fresh vegetables and dried fish might be on the menu. If she was a Christian, she might also use the opportunity to talk about her faith to others at the marketplace.
A conscientious mother would use such opportunities as walking on the road to and from the market to help her children learn and appreciate Scriptural principles. (Deuteronomy 6:6, 7) She might also discuss with her girls principles that would help them become thrifty shoppers.
Another daily chore for the women was a visit to the well (9). There they would replenish the family’s water supply, perhaps talking with other women doing the same. Upon returning home, the mother and her daughters would begin baking. First, they would shape the dough into flat disks and then place them in a preheated oven (10), which was usually located outside. While enjoying the aroma and conversing together, they would watch as the bread baked.
Then they would be off to the nearby stream to wash clothes (11). The women would first carefully clean the clothes with lye, a sodium or potassium carbonate soap made from the ashes of certain vegetation. After rinsing the clothes and wringing them out, the women would spread the garments on nearby bushes and rocks to dry.
After bringing the wash home, the mother and her daughters might go up to the flat roof of their dwelling to mend (12) any damaged garments before returning them to the closets. Later, the girls might be given some embroidering and weaving lessons (13). Soon, it would be time for the women to begin cooking the evening meal (14). Hospitality was a way of life, so the family would be prepared to share their simple meal of bread, vegetables, curds, dried fish, and cool water with any guests.
At the end of the day, as the children would ready themselves for bed, a skinned knee might be daubed with soothing oil. Then, by the light of a flickering lamp, the parents might recite a story from Scripture and say a prayer with their children. As quiet settled over the modest home, the husband would have good reason to recite to his wife the famous words: “A capable wife who can find? Her value is far more than that of corals.”
Choosing “the Good Portion” Without a doubt, conscientious women living in the first century had “many duties” to keep them busy. (Luke 10:40) Likewise, women today, especially mothers, lead busy lives. Modern inventions have simplified some of the household chores. But many mothers are forced by circumstances not only to care for their family but also to work outside the home.
Despite the challenges they face, many Christian women today follow the example of Mary, mentioned in the opening account. They place a high value on spiritual things. (Matthew 5:3) They care well for their families, as the Scriptures encourage them to do. (Proverbs 31:11-31) But they also live by the principle that Jesus mentioned to Martha. As a spiritual woman, she surely took the kindly reminder to heart. Christian women do not let their domestic responsibilities interfere with opportunities to learn about God (15) or to talk to others about their faith. (Matthew 24:14; Hebrews 10:24, 25) They thus choose “the good portion.” (Luke 10:42) As a result, they are highly valued by God, by Christ, and by their families.