Text: Mark 3:20-35
“He’s really gone off the deep end this time,” the people murmured. So Jesus’s family went to him and tried to “restrain him” (Mark 3:21). In this Gospel story it’s Jesus who’s perceived as the problem—not some leper or lame man, not the Pharisees or Sadducees. “What’s wrong with Jesus?” we have to ask now, along with the scribes, the villagers, the brothers, the mother.
Maybe his mother and brothers agreed with the crowd that Jesus was losing it, was not himself. So they assumed responsibility for taking him away. Maybe what he was saying and doing made him look dangerously unstable. A product of their culture, his family may have decided Jesus was demon possessed—and no wonder after the exorcisms he’d been performing. So Mary and the boys showed up for an ancient Middle Eastern intervention. They were prepared to literally “restrain him” in a 1st century equivalent of a 19th century practice of keeping mentally ill relatives in the attic. Maybe.
Or maybe Mary knew her son was challenging social norms in ways that threatened the authorities, putting himself in danger. Maybe Mary was like the Baltimore mother who recently slapped and berated her son at the site of a riot to keep him from becoming another black youth shot by the police. Mary was the Jewish mother of a son whom the Roman police state may have considered a threat just because of who he was. She might have reasoned it was safer for her to shame him in public and yank him back home rather than risk the authorities arresting him or, worse, taking out their exasperation on him right there in the street. She called him out publicly to trade public scorn for his safety. Maybe.
Or maybe this poor single-parent—the Gospel of Mark never mentions Jesus’s father—was worried her son was working himself into utter exhaustion. His nonstop schedule of preaching, healing, and exorcizing demons and his lack of food and rest were taking a terrible toll. Earlier in Mark’s second chapter we learn Jesus had just “departed with his disciples to the sea, and a great multitude from Galilee followed him; hearing all that he was doing, they came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. He told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, so that they would not crush him; for he had cured many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him” (Mark 2:7-10). The crowds just kept on coming. And maybe Mary wanted to get her boy home, put him to bed, and feed him her homey lentil soup. Maybe.
But maybe this strange pericope isn’t about what’s wrong with Jesus. And of course it’s not a story we can faithfully translate into 21st Century American terms as I’ve simplistically done. This story may actually be pointing us to what it means to be human. In which case this is a story that reveals yet another way in which Jesus plumbed the fullness of the human experience by identifying with yet another group of outcasts—the demon-possessed, or what we’d call today the mentally ill. Jesus learned and showed that to be human is to have a mind that can be damaged, a spirit that can be depleted—and restored. Jesus experienced the full spectrum of human joy and suffering, so maybe he was reaching a genuine breakdown. I’m not aware of anyone else interpreting this story in such a way. But why not consider this possibility? Why wouldn’t we be able to follow a Jesus who experienced bouts of depression or struggled with anxiety disorder, for example, and was not always and completely the perfect picture of physical and mental health? What if Jesus WAS on the verge of losing it? What if Jesus was truly like us in all ways? In the words of a song, “What if God was one of us?”
Well, that’s a lot of speculation. We don’t really know what, if anything, was “wrong” with Jesus at this point in Mark’s narrative. His family may have felt afraid for Jesus or afraid of Jesus. They may have been embarrassed or protective or worried or caring or all the above. We don’t know.
What we do know is Jesus’s response. And it seems harsh. It seems very harsh. But it’s his unexpected harshness that makes it possible to hear him say the unexpected.
Mary and the boys had sent word to Jesus and began calling out to him. But he ignored them. Eventually, when the crowd made sure he’d heard that his mother and brothers were trying to get to him, Jesus responded: “Who are my mother and brothers?”
Now I’ve been the mother of a pre-teen, so I’ve parented a child who suddenly puts you at arm’s length, thinking you’re the most ludicrous person in the universe. The way you speak to your child’s friends, the fact that you speak to her friends, the fact that you speak, the fact that you breathe—mortifies her. Jesus is not exhibiting adolescent, eye-rolling embarrassment, of course. But at first it seems he’s distancing himself from his mother.
Picture Jesus looking steadily at his mother, then glancing at the brothers flanking her—and then turning away to ask, “Who are my mother and brothers?” (Mark 3:33).
Mary had been calling to her son—worried he needed sleep and food or an exorcism himself, or anguished that he’s antagonizing the authorities, or concerned about his controversial teachings. Mary may have been pleading with her eldest to go home with them, abandon his futile mission, take a break, calm down, return to his senses. Jesus not only ignored her pleas but also came close to publicly disowning her, thus violating the fifth of the Ten Commandments (“Honor your father and mother”).
“Who are my mother and brothers?” he asked, implicitly denying their relationship. Then to answer his own question he declared, “Here are my mother and brothers” (Mark 3:34), pointing instead to the needy strangers before him. “Here are my kinfolk,” he implied, gesturing toward the diseased and demented and disfigured. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35), he concluded, honoring strangers over his birth family. Did the crowd gasp? Did Mary’s face betray shock and shame? Did the brothers try to hide their anger? Is it even possible they intuited in that moment a larger purpose, a parabolic meaning?
Readers of the Gospels and followers of Jesus are prone to skip over passages that upset our assumptions. But those are the very scriptures that snag us and deserve special attention. This is just such a pericope to confound and frustrate—even as it yields challenging perspective. When Jesus doesn’t seem “nice,” that may be the very time we need to pay attention.
Today’s Gospel story doesn’t really tell us if Jesus is crazy or if the system he’s working in is crazy—or both. But this unexpected depiction of Jesus puts me a little off kilter. Which cracks open for me the way Jesus is exploding the meaning of family. He is redefining what family means. Explain that to Christians opposing gay marriage without recognizing their arguments are based on a recent notion of “family values.” Biblical disequilibrium can help all of us to consider Jesus’s idea: Family is neither necessarily biological nor “traditional.”
The family of God is the ultimate relationship for Jesus followers. All other ways of understanding relatedness—by blood, nationality, religion, culture—all are insufficiently narrow. Our blood families are to be treasured and honored and appreciated and held dearly—yes. But we all belong most truly to the family of God.
In the early 1970s Bill Gaither wrote “The Family of God,” a song that became popular in Evangelical churches:
I’m so glad I’m a part of the Family of God,
I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His Blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod,
For I’m part of the family,
The Family of God.
Maybe I’m being unfair here, but those lyrics and especially the triumphalistic spirit in which that song was sung twisted Jesus’s point about the universalism of God’s family into tribalism. It seemed to me the folks singing, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the Family of God” were rejoicing that they were inside a special family circle, separate from those outside the circle. Being “cleansed by His blood” was the way the select joined this family. The celebration in this song was not celebration of God’s expansiveness but of the community’s exclusiveness.
But in today’s Gospel story Jesus explains clearly what makes someone a member of his family: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Nowhere does he explicitly define the will of God, perhaps because discerning the will of God is not a science; it’s a faithful, ongoing practice, and individuals will determine different ways to live out God’s will. But maybe this “family of God” category can be understood by reading Jesus’s requirement in reverse: When we relate to one another as sisters and brothers, we’re doing God’s will. Our goal then is to be in right (filial, maternal, brotherly/sisterly) relationship with all in God’s family—which is God’s will for us. We can’t do that if we sing triumphantly that, thank God, WE are in God’s family—but others are not.
Unfortunately, family in our culture sometimes means, according to Kathryn Matthews, “self-contained units of consumption busily pursuing an exhausting schedule of activities that, ironically, keep us too busy to connect with one another inside the household or, even less, to other households around us.” She then quotes Ira Brent Driggers, who observes, “Jesus will not settle for isolated family units coming and going on Sunday morning,” for “God pulls us out of our self-interested households, giving us the means of growing in faith and love through the gift of brothers and sisters we would have otherwise ignored” (New Proclamation Year B 2012). http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_june_7_2015.
We don’t have to like all the folks around Jesus’s Open Table. We don’t have to agree with them on all things. We do need to love them as family.
Jesus didn’t condemn the institution of family, and he didn’t reject his own family. He did open up the meaning of family. He wanted us to struggle with this seemingly easy question: Who is my mother? Who is my brother?
Especially on this Sunday that sits midway between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, let’s honor the hard, loving work of parenting even as we extend the meaning of family. Especially this month as we anticipate a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision about marriage equality, let’s remember how Jesus scandalized the religious authorities of his day by redefining who’s in God’s family. He outraged the authorities by daring to imagine family in more inclusive ways.
Some of you have found here a family of choice when family of birth did not fully welcome you. We are learning together, day by day, to follow in the outrageous way of Jesus as we care for all of God’s family.
Who is my mother, my brother, my sister?
God of all the families of earth, help us care for our brothers and sisters. Help us recognize family members, even the ones who seem so very different from us. Amen.