Jesus’ “Family Values”

8 September 2012

Mark 3:31-38 is the startling account of Jesus’ mother and brothers made to cool their heels outside “the house” where Jesus was teaching to a crowd inside “seated around him.” In his apparent put-down of his family, Jesus, “looking around at those seated in the circle he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.’”

But which family is “one’s own”? That is precisely Jesus’ point. If Jesus were a paterfamilias, the patriarch of a family, this statement essentially would disinherit all his natural heirs. He is not a patriarch, but Jesus’ statement still clearly disowns his family of origin in favor of his “fictive kinship” group. (Remember that Mark’s Jesus has no particular reason to trust his blood relatives, since just ten verses earlier they tried to lock him up for lunacy or demonic possession.) Jesus’ “true family” comprises all women and men who hear the word of Godand do it.

Notice that Jesus’ family is not all-inclusive. Jesus is not concerned with “political correctness”; he challenges the status quoin favor of obedience to the divine will.

Stained glass window, from St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh, Northumberland, depicting a queen (possibly Margaret of Scotland) feeding the poor.

Those who hear God’s word but do not live it are not family: hypocrites, those who “talk the talk but do not walk the walk,” who offer Temple worship but do not care for “the least of these, my brothers and sisters,” are excluded from Jesus’ family. Notice also that Jesus is not concerned with whether or not these least “deserve” help; he doesn’t do background checks or make them fill out any application forms to receive aid. Jesus’ sole concern is that his disciples do in fact meet the needs of those who have “fallen through the cracks” of society’s support structures.

Nor are those who live without even attending to God’s word (e.g., pagans, atheists) part of Jesus’ family. Ayn Rand types who assert “No God; only man” are not included. The attitude is so inimical to Jesus’ worldview that it would be pointless even to attempt a conversation. Call it intolerant if you like, or just call it prioritizing: Jesus learned his economic policy from the Hebrew Bible.

Somewhat surprisingly to us, Jesus’ family includes mothers and siblings, but no fathers. The patriarch’s power and authority interferes with hearing and doing God’s word. No one can serve two masters; no one can be bound to obey both God and a paterfamilias, for the human patermight command what God forbids, or vice-versa. Yet the traditional paterfamilias does demand this kind of authority over “his” offspring, wife, extended family members, servants, slaves, and other clients for whom he is patron. Hence, to become part of Jesus’ family, the paterfamilias must relinquish patriarchal authority, humbling himself to the level of a brother.

Promise-keepers” in Jesus’ eyes are not those who take control of “their” families, demanding subordination and obedience, but those who recognize their wives, children, clients, and slaves as siblings, equal in dignity and respect, owing obedience to God alone—and responsible for their own decisions about precisely how they will live that obedience.

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The Bible According to McGinn

People, places, and other points of interest relating to the Biblical texts

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