JESUS AND THE FAMILY
So was Jesus anti-family? The crowd was gathered around him, he was preaching to them and some came to him with a message, your brothers and mother are outside and they wish to see you. And what does Jesus say? , “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about on those who were sitting around him Jesus said, “Look! Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35).
As far as Jesus was concerned, to show commitment to following his way was more important than family conventions. Do you remember when a potential disciple was once invited to follow Jesus the reluctant disciple suggested his family obligations as a barrier. The story is in Matthew 8:21-22: Here it is: “Another of the disciples said to Jesus, “Sovereign, let me first go and bury my father. But Jesus said to him, Follow me; and let the dead bury the dead.”
At first sight this suggests almost a callous disregard for family, but other reported situations in Jesus life certainly don’t support that view. For example Luke 2:39-52 tells how Jesus as a child respected his parents and remained subject to them. There was another incident where Jesus rebukes his mother for something she wants him to do but goes ahead and does it anyway. The fact that his mother was still on the scene in the reported description of the crucifixion and that Jesus commends her care to his beloved disciple suggests that Jesus had never given up on family obligations.
So if Jesus still cared about his family, what is he really on about when he suggests those in the crowd are his real family?
Families are sometimes peculiar in real life. At worst they can become enclaves of power and self-protection and even hate. Think for example of the Mafia who are family- based dynasties and who sometimes will stop at nothing to safeguard the interests of the family including the recent bombing of a school to ensure their loyalties are not challenged. It would be very hard, even impossible, to see Jesus with his values involved in supporting such a situation.
Families can become extremely inwardly focussed. One of the reasons why the gap between the rich in the poor can so easily widen is because families give so much attention to looking after their own. Of course a parent cares about the start in life their child gets. If the parent happens to be rich and can buy the best education at the best school it is normal for a parent to think first and foremost of their own child. If you want your child to make his or her way in the world and you happen to own a large business why not start them with a management role and even a house and car. Is it any wonder that to have an unhelpful or alternately a useful family connection might either condemn you to a life of a loser caught in poverty or alternately support that ensures your path to riches and power. Can I suggest that if we had a society where the driving force was focused on care for neighbours these extremes of wealth and poverty would be far less.
One of the most difficult lessons in following the Christian path is to realize that our loyalties must extend further than to our immediate circle of close friends and family, so Jesus message is not so much that we forget our care for our close family as it is we should widen the family circle to include those who are our neighbours and even those for whom we find we have little in common. That Jesus could find family connection with a happen-chance collection of a crowd then is modelling for how we too should approach the neighbour, the stranger, the one who at first sight appears to have a totally alien way of life.
I suspect that today’s verses from Mark would have brought considerable discomfort to those in the early Church. Much of the Jewish custom was based round the traditional family obligations. The males were expected to marry. If the male later died, a brother would be expected to take over the brother’s wife’s care. There would have been much to discourage a young potential follower of this new Church from leaving his family responsibilities and take on the wandering life of a disciple. That Jesus could point to a much wider concept of family would in effect be telling his potential followers that there are positive alternatives to the small nuclear family.
For Jesus then, it was not so much the rejection of mother and brothers, it was rather his shift in focus to see that others with no necessary biological family or tribal ties were equally deserving of his time and concern. It is true that this is not how most in the world would approach others. Most wars and disputes, even between rival groups who claim different religious affiliation, arise precisely because it is natural to think that those within the circle – whether it be biological family – those who share our particular view of belief, language and even nation – are the only ones deserving of our attention, support and compassion.
When the shift of focus comes it can be remarkably healing and helpful. For example the Salvation Army move outside their ranks to minister to the poor and the derelict in society, and to reduce the immediate pain and as a consequence are understood to be a force for good in society. Similarly the social action of the mainline Church missions, the Quaker peace movements, the workers for the ecumenical movement, and Oxfam with its emphasis on Trade aid are all seen as forces of positive good. This is the gospel in action.
For many of us, we have to live in the uncertain divide between Church and the world. The world daily confronts us with genuine problems where the focus can easily become myopic and inward centred. A port strike where the workers focus on their family and the need to preserve rights – and the owners of the port concentrate on the need to maximize profits for their family of share holders. It takes a very special sort of negotiator to genuinely worry about the needs of the other.
For indigenous people to win the rights for a fair deal is another area where the real harm comes about when those in power are mainly concerned about the personal impact of actions of redress and those seeking redress are only concerned about personal injustice. In Zimbabwe for example farms were confiscated from those who had successfully farmed and given to those previously unable to own land. One set of injustices was replaced with another. Think for a moment the difference it might make if a majority in society were genuinely concerned about those whose history has been one of helpless anger in the face of many years callous exploitation.
It is understandable that we direct our politicians to focus virtually exclusively on our own interests, which of course is why the people in some third world countries find our attitudes to be callous and unfair. However for those of us claiming to follow Jesus there is always an uncomfortable question in the background. If we are following Jesus, has our attitude shifted our focus to the needs of our neighbour, or can we simply avoid the question by thinking the right thoughts when we are safely isolated from our neighbour in Church on a Sunday?
The focus on ourselves causes us to miss seeing the others’ viewpoint. Those who don’t have a relative slowly dying in pain can easily move to focus on our own comfort with rules about preserving life at all costs. Those whose daughter has not been raped or whose wife is not carrying a child diagnosed with the certainty of birth with dreadful brain problems can be much more self-righteous about being anti-abortion than those who not only can relate but are actually forced to relate to those facing unpleasant reality.
Some of the issues are highly charged with emotion. There is now a body of research for example showing that homosexuality is not a free option for some. Since there is some research showing a discernible brain structure difference between those who are known to have homosexual behaviour and heterosexuals – and since we also now know that certain environmental backgrounds can increase the likelihood of homosexual behaviour, it then seems less acceptable to condemn someone for adopting a form of living not shared by a majority in the community.
Behaviour outside our own circle of understanding is easy to condemn.
I see in today’s scripture a genuine revolution in thinking that is at the heart of the gospel.
This does not of course mean anything goes. Jesus says for example that those who do the will of God are his sister and brothers. But the real point is that the label of family member or club associate or even Church affiliate is not what gives the automatic recognition of the place in the Christian group or family, it is rather the adoption and practice of those values that Jesus values so highly. The values and actions of tolerance, or compassion, of concern for neighbours, of love for those who are different – these are the things that bring us to the point where we can call ourselves members of Christ’s family.
This would greatly help our appreciation of other religions. The trouble with a religion of course is that we notice the best in the theory of our religion and the worst in the practice others’ religion. This is no contest. So for example, instead of noticing the vast majority of peaceful Muslims, we are encouraged to notice the Islamic fundamentalists, the suicide bombers and al Qaeda terrorists, then we contrast these things with Christianity as a religion of love. The Islamists notice the warlike attitudes and modern day Crusades of the Christian nations to their countries with their invasions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the horror weapons of white phosphorus and depleted uranium, their exploitation of oil and unlike the Islamists, their Christians apparent lack of charity, which of course as Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we talked and shared with those we see as our traditional enemies in faith.
In Jesus day some of the problems were a little different than those we face today. In Jesus day it was normal for parents select their children’s mates. Women were property and had no freedom in choosing their partners. Jesus may not have entirely removed that tradition but he did at least elevate women from property to persons to partners in ministry. His empathy to respect and honour little children may now seem relatively commonplace but in the record we see Jesus moving towards many of the freedoms we take for granted today.
Unfortunately although many parts of society have improved, the underlying problem of self and family circle focus are still with us. Yet Jesus’ words remain waiting our response. Those who do the will of the one Jesus called Father are Jesus real brothers and sister.
We get a clue how this might be recognised in practice from Paul. According to Paul, whenever the Spirit of Jesus comes into your life, the first evidence is your love for people. In Paul’s words: “The fruit of the Spirit is love.” (Gal. 5:22).
This then becomes our test. If we are indeed in tune with Jesus’ idea of family, when people look at our lives and our interactions, is this fruit of love in response to the Spirit we claim to follow the behaviour they will see?