This morning the Seekers are exploring the concept of Fathers and Fatherhood within the Christian family, and whilst they are doing that we seem in our Gospel reading to be rejecting the concept of a Family of God. 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. You might recall the story of the reluctant disciple in Matthew’s Gospel (8:21-22:) I quote: “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 an almost callous disregard for family, but other reported situations in Jesus life certainly don’t support that view. For example at the end of the birth stories in Luke 2:39-52 Mary 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. It would be very hard, even impossible, to see Jesus with his values involved in supporting such views.
Families can become extremely inwardly focused. 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. Perhaps 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 realise 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 to care for our close family as it is we should widen the family circle to include all who are our neighbours. That Jesus could find a family connection with a happen-chance collection of a crowd is a model 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 comfort to those in the early Church. Within the 1st Century Jewish customs, there would have been much to discourage a potential follower of Jesus 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 arise precisely because it is natural to think that those within the circle – whether it be biological family or those who share our particular view of belief, language and even nation – are the only ones deserving of our attention, support and compassion. “Charity begins at home”, is the most common excuse for not giving to Christian Aid.
When the shift of focus comes it can be remarkably healing and helpful. I was privileged to have a succession of Church Army Associate Ministers in my last Parish called to minister chiefly outside the congregation to the poor and the derelict in our community, and to reduce the immediate pain people often feel. As a consequence they were understood to be a force for good in society. Similarly the social action of other Church missions, the Quaker peace movements, the workers for the ecumenical movement, Oxfam with its emphasis on Trade aid and even in our small way the support we give to St. James, Aston are all seen as forces of positive good. This is the gospel in action.
Most of us though, have to live in the uncertain divide between the Church and the world. The world daily confronts us with genuine problems where the focus can easily become myopic and inward centred. In industrial relations it takes a very special sort of negotiator to genuinely worry about the needs of the other.
As in Syria the fight of some of the 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 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
exclusively on our own interests, which of course is why the people in
third world countries find our attitudes to be callous and unfair.
those of us claiming to follow Jesus there is always an uncomfortable
in the background. If we are following Jesus, has our attitude shifted
focus to the needs of our neighbour, or can we simply avoid the
thinking the right thoughts when we are safely isolated from our
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 some research showing a discernible brain structure difference between those who are known to have heterosexual or homosexual orientations 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. 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. 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. Will those children who will shortly rejoin us from the Ale House be rejoining a nuclear AND a wider family. For those who do the will of the one Jesus called Father are our real brothers and sister.
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 the fruit of love in response to the Spirit what they will see?