Jesus and family

Who are my mother and my brothers?

Ted Grimsrud—[Published in the Gospel Herald, July 1, 1997]


Jesus’ life and teachings challenge so many of our assumptions. For example, he challenges our notions of respectability. He was open and welcoming to the outcasts and sinners and un-respectable people. He had harsh words for those in the most prestigious positions of religious and political leadership–calling the Pharisees “white-washed tombs” and King Herod “that fox.”

Jesus challenges our notions of power. He was confessed to be the Messiah, the Jewish savior who had come to set things right. But rather than leading a violent revolution, he suffered. He accepted a scandalous death of the most humiliating type–crucifixion as a criminal.

Jesus also challenges our notions of family loyalty. This is an especially uncomfortable challenge in this day of hand-wringing about the breakdown of “family values” in our culture. Jesus taught that one must hate one’s father and mother if they come between one and genuine discipleship (Luke 14:26).

In Mark 3:31-35, Jesus asked a rhetorical question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”–and this at a time when his actual mother and brothers had come for him. He answered this by saying that it is those that do God’s will who are his family–not necessarily his mother and brothers of the flesh at all.

To understand more fully what this instance is all about, we must look at its context. The third chapter of Mark’s Gospel tells of the early days of Jesus’ ministry. The kingdom of God is at hand with Jesus. A new day has dawned, a new day of openness and healing, justice and reconciliation.

As part of this new day, Jesus calls into being a new community of faith, a community of people committed to following God’s will. He chooses the core of this community, the twelve disciples, in Mark 3:13-19.

Then Jesus and his core followers head to Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth. Here we see an unfortunate conflict. The very people who should have best understood and most joyfully welcomed this new expression of God’s saving involvement in human history don’t understand. The religious leaders don’t deny that Jesus has power, but they argue that this is due not to God’s power but to Satan’s.

Jesus is misunderstood by his own family as well. We are told that when his family hears of what he is doing, they go to “restrain him” (or, perhaps more accurately, to seize him by force–the same term is used twice later by Mark in describing Jesus’ arrests). They feared for his sanity– “People were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind'” (Mark 3:21).

Jesus responds to the slander of the religious leaders with his enigmatic statement, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:29). From the context, it appears likely that what he meant was that when you attribute the things of God to Satan, you are so blind that you can never know God’s mercy as mercy. You will keep mistakenly seeing it as of the devil, mislabeling good as evil, and missing out altogether on God’s mercy.

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers return, apparently trying again to take him away and straighten him out. When Jesus is told that they have come, he asks rhetorically, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (3:33). Jesus looks at those who are with him, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (3:34-35).

These words of Jesus are disconcerting. In some ways they are troubling. In other ways they are radically inclusive and liberating.

How are these words troubling? They seem to go directly counter to the teaching of the Law. The fifth commandment speaks clearly: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod. 20:12). So, too, do the frightening words of Deut. 21:18-21: “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘this son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.”

Was Jesus refusing to “honor” his mother? Was he a “stubborn and rebellious” son? There may be evidence for arguing that he was. However, I believe he was simply following his own sense of calling–and this led him to refuse to defer to his mother’s wishes for him. He was, to some extent at least, acting contrary to the traditional ideal of unquestioning obedience and deference to parental authority and family ties. He operated according to a different scale of values. He placed faithfulness to God above any other commitment.

Here is also where Jesus’ words can be understood to be radically inclusive and liberating. Jesus, it appears, is basically affirming that what matters in God’s kingdom is a person’s faith, a person’s commitment to follow God’s will, a person’s openness to God’s mercy.

In other words, faith matters much more than birthright, than family ties, than ethnicity, than inherited pedigree. This is the type of openness which the apostle Paul reflects in his famous words from Gal. 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus is totally redefining family in terms of faith. Membership in God’s family is open to all, equally, without discrimination–based only on a willingness to do God’s will. This undercuts any practices in the community of faith that discriminate on the basis of gender, race, social class, age, or any other of our human lines of insider-outsider distinction.

How might Jesus’ words apply to our Mennonite world today? If ever a movement in the history of Christianity has embodied the spirit of Jesus’ teaching about God’s family, it was the 16th century Anabaptists. At the center of their faith was a commitment to believer’s baptism, the conviction that the church is to be made up of people who themselves choose to follow the way of Jesus, to do God’s will. They rejected the notion of a “birthright church,” in which membership is something one is born into. What mattered for the Anabaptists was faith, not family connections.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world during the Anabaptists’ time was not ready for such an approach. The Anabaptists’ were severely persecuted from the start by the establishment churches, both Protestant and Catholic. Before long, the Anabaptists, who came to be known as Mennonites within a few generations, had evolved into more of a birthright church themselves. Mennonites became an ethnic enclave, essentially closed to those who spoke a different language, who didn’t have a “Mennonite name,” who weren’t born into the faith. The Mennonite church “family” was by and large identical with Mennonites’ biological families. This characterized the Mennonite tradition for hundreds of years.

Within the past 100 years, however, the Mennonite church has begun to be transformed. For one thing, Mennonites joined the missionary movement in the late 19th century and established churches around the world. Some of these non-Western churches have flourished, to the point that there are now as many or more Mennonites outside of Europe and North America than there are on those continents.

Even in North America as well, gradually the Mennonite churches have begun to attract people who are not birthright Mennonites. However, North American Mennonite churches still struggle with the legacy of a more birthright-oriented faith. Many Mennonites still identify certain family names as “Mennonite names”–in a way that puts off and even hurts non-birthright Mennonites.

Jesus’ question, “Who is my family?” still offers a challenge to North American Mennonite churches. Can we recognize non-birthright Mennonites as full brothers and sisters in our faith-family?

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