A friend once told me that some early Christians thought the story of the Prodigal Son was really the story of Mary and Martha with a gender change. She offered examples:
- Martha seems like the older brother, irritated and “slaving” away in duty.
- Mary sits “inside” at the feet of Jesus while Martha is “outside” in the kitchen.
- The house doesn’t belong to both of them. Martha owns it, and the Prodigal was penniless because he had spent his portion of the inheritance on wild living.
I wasn’t sold on the interpretation but it tickled my curiosity. In casual conversation I mentioned it to several friends. They were furious at the idea and furious with me.
They were furious, but not because it was idle speculation (which would have been a fair criticism); they were angry because it sullied Mary’s reputation.
- “I hate how the church belittles women. Here they strip Mary of her goodness and turn her into some kind of whore.”
- “How dare you think of Mary with such dishonor and impurity!”
The new interpretation had mildly tickled my curiosity; the ensuing, bitter, indignant, antagonism fascinated me. Mary’s adoration at the feet of Jesus is beautiful.
Could anything she ever did (or didn’t do) in her former life diminish that beauty?
Mary’s innate goodness
Scripture isn’t explicit about Mary’s pre-Jesus life. While there have been theories, we simply don’t know. She could have spent her money in wild living; she could have spent her life in service to the poor; and she could have simply been a normal person.
Scripture says that any goodness apart from God is filthy rags (Is. 64:6). If Mary had been a “good woman” before meeting Jesus, she is no better than if she had first been a whore. God doesn’t love her more (or less) for one former life over the other.
I know this in my head, but let me be honest. Something in me hopes that Mary was “good” in her former life. Something in you might hope so as well.
Why is that? Something inside me feels a little better about myself. I say I need Jesus, but my heart wants to think, “I’m a little bit better” (just like Mary) because I was never a pimp or a whore. Maybe … I deserve his love a little more than others.
It’s an inner, unspoken, self-applause, “Thank you, Lord, that I’m not like other sinners.”
I suspect if a real prostitute heard of that interpretation, she’d be encouraged. It would say that real, deep, true, life-changing beauty can be had for all of us no matter our background. If a prostitute wouldn’t be offended, why should we? Do we somehow … think we are better? God help us.
I agree that many Christians through the ages have treated women poorly because of their gender. I don’t, however, think this interpretation is an example of it.
The gospels overflow with the stupidity of the disciples; daft, foolish men! They’re always arguing about who is the best, they rarely understand Jesus, and they all ultimately abandon him. The men are no better than the women.
The gospel of grace is that Jesus loves us despite our former lives, not because of them.
Two ways to avoid God
Flannery O’Connor writes about a character in one of her novels, “There was a deep black wordless conviction in his heart that the best way to avoid Jesus is to avoid sin” (Wise Blood).
She says there are two ways to avoid God: to be really, really bad, or to be really, really good. That’s the point of the Prodigal Son parable, two brothers who equally miss the grace of the father, one by being bad and one by being good. Both are equally lost.
All we need is need
I think there is some deep dark urging in our hearts to be good so God will love us more. It sounds manipulative (“God, I was good, so you have to answer my prayer”) so we may not admit it. Honestly, though, I often find it easier to go to God when I’ve been “good” and harder when I haven’t. As if my relationship with him depends on my goodness.
But Jesus didn’t love Mary because she was good; she only became truly good because he loved her. The best offering we can bring to God is our need, not our goodness.
Can we repent for our goodness?
Jesus tells the Pharisees that, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). He doesn’t mean the Pharisees don’t need to repent. He means their “goodness” prevents them.
During the Last Supper, Peter says, “Those other disciples may leave you, but I’d never do that” (Matt. 26:33, paraphrased). His “goodness” keeps him from leaning into God.
The Christian leaders I respect most are those who repent the most. The Christian walk begins when we repent for our bad deeds, but it deepens only when we learn to repent for our good deeds done for selfish reasons, which sometimes include ministry.
The forgiven prostitute “loves much because she has been forgiven much,” while all the others, “love little because they have been forgiven little.” We don’t have to become whores or pimps to be forgiven much. We can begin by repenting for our good deeds done out of wrong motivation.
So … what is the correct interpretation?
Is the Prodigal Son the story of Mary and Martha? I investigated and found no early church writings to support that theory.
The Prodigal Son is really the story of all of us. Some days we’re the younger brother, and other days we’re the older. In both cases our need of God’s grace is equal.
So with that understanding, yeah, the parable is about Mary and Martha too. (Just don’t tell anyone that you heard it from me!)