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Picture the scene with me. Jesus was back in Capernaum where he had performed so many of his miracles—where the crowds had been so intense that some had even torn a hole in a neighbor’s roof to get to him. And now even greater crowds, attracted by his subsequent miracles and his words (no man ever spoke as Jesus did), were pressing in on him.
This pressing multitude was a desperate mixture. At the center were the newly chosen apostles, the Twelve, admiringly hanging on Jesus’ every word. In contrast to these eager faces, there leered in the press the pained visages of the scribes, also turning over his every syllable, having just accused Jesus of being in league with Satan. Some in the multitude were eager, some ecstatic, some quizzical, some perplexed, and some livid and blasphemous. Every extreme was represented: from nationalist Zealots to collaborationist tax collectors, from ignorant fishermen to the trained intelligentsia.
At the periphery of the surging throng, standing by nervously, was Jesus’ family. “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you’” (vv. 31, 32). Unbeknownst to the crowd, Jesus’ mother and his younger brothers hoped to lure him away so they could privately take him back to Nazareth where he could be protected from his mania (cf. v. 21). A message was passed from person to person. When it reached Jesus, many of the throng knew the nature of the request and expected Jesus to defer.
They certainly were not ready for his startling reply: “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him [Here the idea is that he gave them a searching look.1 Matthew adds that he gestured with his hand, 12:49] and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 34, 35).
These would be startling words in any culture, but in Hebrew culture, where the family was so sacred, they were shocking! A murmur of amazement swept the multitude. Mary, who had nursed and dressed Jesus and loved him all the way into his magnificient manhood, and now had come for him in loving concern, was crushed. His brothers were likewise shocked, and perhaps angered. Though we have the advantage of Biblical perspective, we still, as parents and brothers and sisters, find his words difficult. This is one of Jesus’ hard sayings, and Renan, the famous skeptic, used it to accuse Jesus of “trampling under foot everything that is human—love and blood and country.”2
What then did Jesus mean by his shocking answer? First, he did not mean that he was severing family ties. In the final hours of his life, while he hung in agony on the Cross, he thought of his mother and made provision for her (, ). Later, his brother James would become a devoted father in the Church and a martyr. Jesus held parenthood in the highest regard and castigated those who failed to give honor to their parents, as in the disgraceful use of Corban (7:9–13). Jesus was not suggesting the breaking of family ties, though he did acknowledge that Christian commitment would sometimes bring division within the family (cf 10:28–30).
What he did mean was that there is a deeper kinship than flesh and blood, a spiritual kinship which is characterized by obedience to the Father. For this reason he said, “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Obedience does not originate relationship with God (faith does that), but obedience is a sign of it. Jesus was saying that there is a new family which is far superior to the human family, for it is eternal. Its ties are far stronger. It is far more satisfying. It is far more demanding. Those who are in his spiritual family are far more dear to him than his human family, with whom he lived for thirty years! What Jesus said here has massive importance.
Put another way: obedience is the key to experiencing “family” with God. This was true even for Jesus. Early in his ministry Jesus told his followers, “My food … is to do the will of him who sent me” (). And in Gethsemane, in a bloody sweat, he cried to his Father, “Abba!, Father … everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (14:36). Every beat of Christ’s heart was given to performing his Father’s will. This was essential to his experience of “family.”
If this was so for Christ, how much more for us? We are children of God, but our subjective awareness of the sweetness of being in God’s family is conditioned upon our obedience. Alexander Maclaren paraphrased this: “Whoever does God’s will is [and feels himself to be] my brother and sister and mother.”3 It is no wonder that in the Lord’s Prayer Jesus commanded us to pray, “your will be done,” for in obeying God we open our souls to the fullness of being his family. Obey the Lord, and an unparalleled family experience awaits you.
But there is even more, for obedience is also the key to experiencing “family” with our brothers and sisters in Christ on earth. When we make our wills his will, we experience a dynamic relationship with others who are living in submission to him.
We have probably had the experience of meeting another Christian or Christian couple. You begin to converse, and soon you are talking about Christ and ministry for him. You quickly realize that you are experiencing a sense of “family” which transcends flesh and blood.
One of my own dear memories of this is being in Austria at Schloss Mittersil, standing in the courtyard of the Castle surrounded by pink and white geraniums in the window boxes and talking to a missionary couple about our mutual ministries. This was followed by a cup of home-brewed coffee in their Volkswagen camper and an unforgettable sense of family. What a fellowship of mutual commitment and mutual obedience.
Jesus spoke of this rich experience later in 10:29, 30 when he said, “I tell you the truth … no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.” Jesus was talking about the sense of “family” which comes to the obedient.
Can there be any more positive call to do the will of God? Such are the implications of Jesus’ statement about our spiritual sense of family. But there is more, because it has correspondingly wonderful implications for our physical husband-wife, parent-child families.
We are often aware of the joys of our human families, perhaps particularly during Christmas and other holiday seasons. There is a special kind of family love or affection which courses through us. It is the kind of love, as C. S. Lewis has said, which makes us use “old” as a term of affection4—“good old Uncle Jim” who may in fact be only thirty, and “good old Larry” who is really forty! Such comfortable love develops with the years, like a favorite old slipper. At the same time, it is built upon and sustained by the other loves: eros, agape, and phila. Next to God and his will, our earthly families are of greatest importance.
Despite this, today we are witnessing the disintegration of the family all around us, even in the Church. One reason for this is that societal pressures are hostile to the nuclear family. Some persons are even actively working for its dissolution.
The eminent sociologist Amitai Etzioni, in his book An Immodest Agenda: Rebuilding America Before the 21st Century, says:
According to my calculations, if the nuclear family continued to be dismembered at the same accelerating rate, by the year 2008 there would not be a single American family left. I do not believe this will actually occur; I expect some major social force to change the present course of the American nuclear family, if only because no complex society has ever survived without a nuclear family. But one cannot ignore the fact that the present trend is over fifteen years old and has been accelerating. So a most obvious reason the family is in trouble is the negative tide of culture which is carrying many of the unwilling with it as hapless victims.5
But there is, especially among Christians, another reason why the family is in trouble: its worship. In a valiant effort to stem the tide, many Christians and non-Christians alike have made the family everything. Every moment of every day, every involvement, every commitment, every engagement is measured and judged by the question, “How will this benefit my family?” While this is generally commendable, it can degenerate into a familial narcissism. The four walls of the home become a temple and only within and for those walls are any sacrifices made. Thus we commit domestic idolatry! This is an immense tragedy.
The tragedy is this: every earthly loyalty, if it is made central, becomes idolatry, and all idolatries eventually destroy their worshipers. The truth is, many of the psychological problems in our families can be traced to parents whose affections bind rather than release and liberate.6 Avoiding the permissive destruction which is ravaging our society, some parents perpetrate a possessive destruction, which is equally devastating. Jesus warned about this when he said, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” ().
What can we do to preserve and elevate our families? The answer begins with the family putting love and obedience to Christ above everything else. What does this mean? For example: none of us can love our spouses as they ought to be loved. Only Christ can do that. However, “We love because he first loved us” (). Thus, we are able to love him and others as we respond to his love. Most of us need to be better lovers, but being a better lover begins, for the believer, by loving him. Christ must be first!
The same is true for our children. Making them everything will not enable us to love them as we ought, or make it possible for them to love us as they ought. We must love and obey God first. Anything less is idolatry. Our children must also love and obey God. When our children come to Christ, there is a fellowship with them that transcends and eternalizes earthly kinship.
When St. Augustine finally came to faith in answer to the prayers of his mother, Monica, the two, according to his Confessions, stood in a window in Ostia realizing that they were more truly kindred than ever before. The family must be church!
Two thousand years ago when Jesus gave his startling answer, he shocked his mother and brothers, and all who heard him. The shock waves have reverberated down through the centuries. But it has been a therapeutic shock, for it teaches us that when we obey him we enjoy the blessed sense of being “family” with his devoted children here. This loving obedience to him is also the key to our earthly families, for when we please him first, we can love our wives, our husbands, our children, and our parents as they ought to be loved.
How about you? Do you have a growing sense of family with God? Is there a joyous sense of family with his servants? Is your own human family being elevated and perpetuated by the eternal sense of family? If not, or if you want it to be more so, commit yourself right now to doing his will.
Hughes, R. K. (1989). Mark: Jesus, servant and savior (Vol. 1, pp. 96–101). Westchester, IL: Crossway Books.
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