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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Salter Goodwin

Sister Power?

I love my sister. We grew up practically joined at the hip. One of our favorite activities to share has always been time in the kitchen. We looked for from-scratch recipes. We decorated Jell-0 salads and Betty Crocker cakes. We were a power team in the kitchen and notorious for the messes we could make.. I remember laughter, not bossiness. I remember cooperation, not complaints.

So when my brother married in August and my sister hosted the family reception, I came in early to help her prepare for the big day. It was better than a road trip together. We measured and mixed. We talked and laughed. We fell back into the rhythm that two hearts linked by blood and memories knew so well. The result was a masterpiece, a spread fit for royalty.

But for me, the result was that magic of fitting back together, two puzzle pieces separated by time and distance and life’s responsibilities, coming back together to fit perfectly. So what happened to the sisters, Mary and Martha, in the story that Luke records? (Luke 10:38-41) They had the chance of a lifetime to prepare a meal for Jesus and his disciples. When did each forget the other? When did Martha think Mary was losing sight of the task? When did Mary assume that Martha didn’t need her? When did the separation begin?

I’m a Martha from the get-go. I look for jobs to be done. I’m not a stand around, conversation consumer. So I understand Martha. But there are days when I am Mary and all I want to do is sit and reflect. I want to be where deep conversations take me to new understandings. I don’t want to be bothered by what someone else says I have to do. So who was in charge in that Bethany kitchen? Whose rights mattered the most? To malign either sister’s basic approach is a poor rendering of the lessons we need to learn from these sisters. Of course we can’t take the words of Jesus lightly. There is reprimand for Martha. But how did he say it? With frustration and angst and put down? I don’t think so. I think he said it with love and compassion and understanding. I think he knew what Martha intended and appreciated every pro-active way she had prepared for this family meal among friends. But he wouldn’t let Martha’s frustration in the moment get in the way of a lesson she needed to learn. She had lost perspective, the big picture, balance, and maybe most of all, her ability to relate to her sister or Jesus. She forgot she wasn’t in charge. Ultimately, all authority we think we have is delegated authority. It’s never ours to begin with. There’s always someone or Someone to answer to for the way we use authority. I’ve had to learn that lesson more than once when my one-note work had the potential of creating more dissonance than harmony. It comes down to self-centered disillusion, doesn’t it? We can be so consumed with our way that we don’t see another’s important viewpoint. It’s not about unity at all costs. It’s about unity that matters. Unity that brings peace. Unity that doesn’t just get my job done, but gets a bigger job done that I can’t do by myself. These sisters keep teaching me these lessons: 1. Harmony isn’t one-note work.

Harmony comes when many notes work together. It takes learning to acknowledge when you begin blaming instead of naming your own shortcomings. Never lose sight of the symphony you can be a part of. 2. Look for relationship not rights.

I’ve seen it in committees, families, and churches. People come together to push their ideas and end up pushing people away. No one wins. And maybe that’s the biggest part of the problem: it should never be about winning. Even if we are the appointed leader, we come under the authority of Jesus in the way we handle that leadership. My bottom line lesson is that Mary’s action tames my Martha bent and Martha’s work ethic protects me from Mary’s blinders. I need both. Charles Wesley said it perfectly in one of his hymns:

Faithful to my Lord’s commands, I still would choose the better part; Serve with careful Martha’s hands, And loving Mary’s heart.

If you want to go deeper in this character study between sisters, especially if you have any relationship dissonance in your family, download the one-sheet Bible study here and see what Jesus wants to say to you through Martha and Mary.

Pictures: DG, Free Bible Images,

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