Monday, September 15, 2014

What Is a Family?

What Is a Family?

The Lectionary links two sets of verses from St. Mark chapter 3 for The Gospel Lesson. These are verses 20-21 verses 31 through 35. They are separated by the verses  in which Jesus speaks of the sin for which there is no forgiveness, the sin against the Holy Spirit. I will take the liberty to read these again and then to make a note about them.

Gospel: Mark 3: 20-21, 31-35
20 And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread.
21 And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.
31 There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him.
32 And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.
33 And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?
34 And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!
35 For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

In verse 21 the King James version mentions Jesus “friends.” Others translation have his “associates” or his “ own people.”  When you come to verse 31 Mark clearly refers to  Jesus’s brethren, or brothers, and his mother. In light of that most translations now translate the word translated “friends” in verse 21 family. Besides the link between the two sets of verses, there is also the question of who these “friends” or associates could have been since St. Mark could hardly refer to the disciples whom Mark tells us were busy along with Jesus.  I think the reason the verses 20 and 21 are linked with verses 31-35 is because the lectionary assumes both sets of verses refer Jesus’s family.

What is a family? That used to be an easy question. A nuclear family included a husband, wife, and their children. An extended family included the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It’s a lot more complicated now.

Jesus was part of a family, but he also challenged the traditional definition of family.

1. The Family to which Jesus Belonged

Most of us like our privacy and our meals. Mark tells us about a time when Jesus could enjoy neither. Peter and Andrew had a home in the Galilean town of Capernaum. Jesus stayed there when he was in town. Because his miracles that showed that God was uniquely at work in Jesus and because of his teaching that rung true and had a note of authority, this was a time in his ministry when Jesus was very popular. On this occasion, and probably many others, as soon as people heard Jesus  was in town, they crowded not only around the outside but also inside the house. This multitude of people demanded so much of Jesus’s time that he and his disciples could not even get time to eat.

When Jesus’s family got word in Nazareth heard what was going on, they became so concerned about Jesus they made an emergency trip of about 20 miles to Capernaum.

Who are these family members? If we are right in linking the two sets of verses, then the family members are Mary, Jesus’s mother, and his brothers. But who were these brothers? The natural way to take “brothers” is to refer to sons who were born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus. However, some say these must be either cousins or step brothers who were sons of Joseph by a previous marriage. The only reason I know of to say these are not real, though half brothers, is to maintain the perpetual virginity of Mary. However, there is no reason to think that Mary and Joseph did not have a normal marital relationship after Jesus was born and that children were born to this relationship.

Why did Jesus’s mother and brothers feel such urgency that they traveled from Nazareth to Capernaum. They considered it a family emergency. They needed to do something. They had come  to the conclusion that Jesus  must have “lost it.” You know how we sometimes see the stress and the zeal of a person under pressure, and we fear that he is close to “flipping out” or that he has “flipped out.” Jesus’ family decided that He had gone over the edge. So they did what a family of their day would have done. They decided to have a family intervention.

Today we might get a person admitted to a hospital or at least get him under a doctor’s care. They did not have those options, so they went to Capernaum with the thought that they would take him under control and take him back home, where they could watch him, and where, perhaps with rest and nourishment, he could come back to his senses. But when they arrived the house was so crowded inside and out that they had no choice but to stand outside and send word in to Jesus that his family had arrived and wanted to see him.

Between the two sections in Mark 3 about Jesus and his family, there is report of an investigative commission sent to Galilee from Jerusalem by the temple authorities. What was their conclusion?  “He has an unclean spirit.” The attributed his work to the devil. And what did his family think”? “He is out of His mind.” The religious leaders thought he was demon possessed, and his family thought he was crazy.

Anytime you feel misunderstood you might pause to consider Jesus – the religious authorities think he is demon possessed and his own mother and siblings think he is crazy! What is striking and disturbing is that his own family shares with the antagonistic authorities a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus – of Who he is and what He is doing.  It makes us wonder what we would have thought had we been there. And it requires us to ask ourselves now what we think of Him.

The reaction of Jesus’s family reminds us of the options available for understanding Jesus  - His personality and His ministry. As C.S. Lewis and others have said, Jesus was mad or bad, lunatic or liar, or else He must be who He claimed to be Lord -  Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

The response of Jesus’ family to Him and of families sometimes to Christians tells us that Jesus himself was not understood and that, if we walk with him, he, not our blood relations, will be our first loyalty and that our devotion to Him may put division between us and our families.

2. The Family  Jesus Questioned

If the conclusions of Jesus’ own family concerning him are disturbing so, too, we may find is the response of Jesus. In response to the notification that His family has arrived and wanted to speak with Him, Jesus said, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” His mother and brothers are after all his family. They have traveled across Galilee to see him. They have come because they are concerned about him. And rather than inviting them to come in, or going out to greet them, Jesus remained inside and asked what seems to be rather cold question.

Was Jesus indifferent to his family responsibilities? No. We will find Him later in Mark rebuking the Pharisees for ignoring their responsibilities under the fifth commandment to care for their aged parents. And, when He was dying, one of the seven statements he is recorded to have made from the cross had to do with the care of His mother, Mary. He said to Mary, “Woman, behold your son!” and to John, “Behold, your mother!” One of his last acts was to commit his mother into the care of his beloved disciple.

But, Jesus does put something of a distance between himself and His family. Even when he was twelve he made it clear to Mary and Joseph that he was the Son of the heavenly Father and that his priority was his true Father’s business. Earlier in His public ministry, when he attended a wedding and was told by his mother that the wine had run out, he said to her, “Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” He preserved his freedom and his independence of action. Not even his mother could intervene in these things. He loved His mother and was respectful to her, but he put a distance between them that said, “I must act in accord with my Father in heaven’s plan and according to the liberty He has given to me in fulfilling the mission He gave me.”

For Jesus family did not trump all else. It is hard to overstate the importance of the family, but the family must not become an idol.  We must not make a cult of the family. Jesus knew what it meant to leave mother and brother, to put the heavenly Father first, to forsake all and follow the Father’s will. When he calls us to follow him and to make him our first love and loyalty, he calls us to follow him in a discipleship he knows. For the Christian it is always Jesus we love first and best and him we follow no matter what that costs us, even in family relationships. Jesus was not kidding, and he knew of what He spoke when he said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).

3.  The  Family Jesus Creates

Jesus turned his attention from his mothers and brothers to those gathered around Him in the house and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” The group he looked on included the twelve disciples who had left behind their connections to this world to follow him. It included others who were listening to his Word, understanding, believing, and following. At this point his family are the outsiders and those who are gathered around him listening to his teaching are the insiders.

You may have had the experience of coming into a group and wondering if there is any way you could ever belong. Maybe it was when, as a young person, you moved to a new school. Or, it may have been when you got a new assignment to work with different people at work. Or, it may have been when you came to this church. You look at the group and you know that there are those who the “insiders” who really belong, and those who are the “outsiders” who may be there but don’t belong. It’s very much the feeling a child gets when he wonders if he will ever be invited by the other kids into play circle. It’s the feeling Rudolph had as he watched but never was invited to join in tiny reindeer games. Now we look at Jesus and wonder who might get into circle he considers His family. And Jesus puts out His hand and points to people like you and like me and says, “Here are my mother and my sisters and my brothers.”

Who are included in the family? “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” That at first might seem discouraging. Who of us would claim that we do the will of God? If doing God’s will is what it takes to be in Jesus’ true family, there is no possibility you are I are going ever to be included in that holy family.  

But here, John Calvin, who so often is caricatured as a cold, logical, hard man comes to our rescue. Calvin explains.

“Moreover, by ‘doing the will of the Father’ He does not intend a precise fulfilling of all the righteousness of the Law (for if this were so the name of brothers which He gives to His disciples would belong to no-one). But in particular He commends faith, the well-spring and origin of holy obedience, and also covers up the defects and faults of the flesh so that they may not be imputed. Christ’s saying is well known: ‘This is the will of my Father, that whosoever beholds the Son, and believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 6:40).” (Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels, v. II, p. 56)

The basic thing is faith in Christ as our Savior and Lord. When we have such faith all the shortcomings of our obedience will not be counted against us. And that same faith will prove to be the living well from which will flow both the desire for and the doing of the will of God.

Good news, brothers and sisters! We’re in – we’re the brothers and sisters of Jesus Himself. We have put our faith in him for our salvation, and we have trusted him to be the Lord of our lives. Now by his grace we seek to do what he did – to do the will of the Father in heaven. And, as we seek to do that will, whatever failings there are will be forgiven and covered by the perfection of Jesus’s  performance of the will of God.

Now, if we are “in” we must not refuse to welcome all others he includes in His family.  Blood, they say, is thicker than water. The original meaning of that saying is obscure. What I think most people mean when they say it is  that the bonds of family will prove stronger than the bonds of friendship or other associations. However, I have learned that  this saying may be rooted in the Old Testament and may mean the opposite of the way we now use it. The blood means that the blood of the covenant.  The water is the amniotic fluid in the womb. The blood of the covenant is thicker - more binding - than the water of the womb. God’s covenant creates a greater bond than shared genetic material. Faith trumps family. And that it is the way it should be. Christ said he considered His true family to be those who do the will of God whether blood relatives or not. And, for us, in this family we should always affirm and practice that we are closer and more committed to those who through faith are with us the members of Jesus’s family than to those with whom we share only the kinship of the flesh.

What is a family? One answer it that it is a group of people bound together by blood relations. But there is a family with stronger bonds than that. It is the family of faith who are bound together by the blood of Jesus. Brothers and sisters, we belong to the family of Jesus!

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