by Ellen Sims
Most of us join a family on the day we’re born. Many of us join other or additional families along the way. Maybe during high school you were a foreign exchange student living in a home where you were treated like family. Maybe a kind neighbor or relative took you in when your family of origin became too dysfunctional. Maybe you married into another family and had to adjust to new traditions and expectations. George had to adjust to my family’s obsession with food, especially exotic new recipes, while I adjusted to his family’s practice of putting predictable and cautiously seasoned meals on the table. Have any of you ever joined a new family?
Tragically, some of us have experienced rejection by our first families. Your birth family or family by marriage may have, in effect, cast you out of the family circle–maybe because you “came out” as gay or bi or trans. One of the most heartbreaking injustices in our culture is the senseless bigotry against lgbtq persons, often fomented by churches, which leads some parents to believe they must reject and evict their own CHILDREN–even children who are still minors.
Others have experienced a falling out with family for other reasons, or maybe just a gradual distancing from one’s birth family—as time or changing values or different experiences made it harder to maintain the relationship. For the fortunate ones, friends who are like family step in as a new family.
If you to some degree have lost family connections, I hope you’ve found another new family unit that accepts you for who you are. I hope we at Open Table can be family for one another—supplementing or subbing in at times for “original” families. I hope, for instance, as holidays approach, that we can be sensitive to the fact that some among us don’t have family with whom to spend Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter. Let’s step in for family, as needed, when a church member is hospitalized. We can do so without turning church into a social club. We don’t have to be BFFs to demonstrate Christian love and care.
The early Jesus followers knew what it meant to lose one family but gain another. They called one another sister and brother. They cared for one another, especially the widows and orphans, like family. And we see in the Gospel accounts how Jesus asked his followers to defy their culture’s family-centered, patriarchal mores in order to follow him and forge a new loyalty with a new model of family.
But Jesus’s demands could sound to us as fanatical as the demands of extremist groups like the Church of Scientology today. Like cults of today, Jesus asked his followers to drop everything, give up everything to follow him. Today’s pericope begins as people who believe Jesus has lost his mind appeal to his mother and brothers to “restrain him.” He’s gone off the deep end! So bizarre is his behavior that the scribes assume he’s possessed by a demon. We’ll not get sidetracked now about demonic possession or about what some have termed “the unpardonable sin” in verse 29 but which is actually termed an “eternal sin” which means something different. The focus of this periscope is on something actually more shocking: Jesus’s seeming dismissal of his own family.
Listen to the radical words Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel reading and imagine how much more disrespectful and dismissive and countercultural they must have sounded to first century Near Eastern people living in a patriarchal society where family shaped one’s core identity and where an individualized personality wasn’t experienced as it is today. Recall the background narrative: Jesus has been hounded by the crowds. He has temporarily withdrawn into a house when those sincerely concerned for his sanity or plain old busybodies fetch Jesus’s mother and siblings. Starting with verse 31, notice the literal separation between Jesus and his family that might also connote an emotional distance. His mother and siblings remain outside the house and can’t go into the house themselves. Jesus is inside behind a closed door and also surrounded by a crowd within the house, a double physical barrier between Jesus and his family.
Apparently, the family sends a messenger to the house to say that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for him. The family does not even address him directly. Does he then reply, as he does in Matthew’s Gospel when little children are trying to see him, “Let them come to me!”? No. He responds in a what seems a smart alecky tone: “Who are my mother and brothers?” And his answer to his own question must have pierced his mother’s heart—or at least confused her greatly if/when it was later relayed to her: “My real family is here INSIDE this house with me. My real family consists of those who do God’s will.” If I’d been Jesus’s momma, my reaction might have been, “Ouch.”
Of course, we might interpret Jesus’s surprising comment in a number of ways. Here are two:
1. We might see his response as extending the meaning of family in a dramatic way that does not actually exclude his real mother and siblings. In other words, Jesus doesn’t deny his relationship to his mother and siblings; he might instead be dramatically illustrating the inclusion of others in the definition of family. Such radical inclusion would be consistent with his ministry.
2. We might also see his response as focusing on the cost of discipleship, even at the expense of family relationship. Recall that Mark’s biography of Jesus says little about his family. Mark has no nativity story. Today’s pericope includes the first and only appearance of Mary in this entire Gospel—and only one other mention of his mother is made (in chapter 6) when Jesus returns to Nazareth and the people ask if he’s Mary’s son. So the community that brought us the Gospel of Mark apparently didn’t know the stories about Mary and Joseph, or Mary at the cross of Jesus. Of course, each Gospel account brings a distinct emphasis, a particular theological agenda. Mark isn’t interested in developing Jesus’s earthly family into saints. Mark is interested in emphasizing the cost of discipleship. Mark—here and elsewhere—might still be able to speak to you and me about the cost of discipleship all these centuries later.
You see, Mark’s original readers were, shortly after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, experiencing persecution from the Romans and internal schism within Judaism and schisms that even fractured families. You and I don’t worry that following Jesus might lead to our families disowning us. And yet . . . and yet we are living in bizarre times. At the risk of sounding apocalyptic and given our current political trajectory, I can imagine in more despairing moments that in this country people who express opinions that differ from the people in power could be censored and silenced, could be persecuted, could be rounded up, could turn against siblings. But we won’t have to devolve into totalitarianism before Jesus followers are called upon to take unpopular stands for justice and compassion. I don’t want to court divisiveness or romanticize factionalism. But always there are everyday ways we must choose to follow Jesus’s challenging way, which WILL impact our relationships, our futures.
The cost of discipleship can sometimes mean the loss of relationships. That is a key theme in Mark. The cost of discipleship for me has even meant risking the severance of a key relationship in my life. The cost of loving extravagantly as we include others and forge new and more authentic relationships is sometimes the loss of other relationships (though our love for all, even our enemies, remains). The cost of being in solidarity with all those Jesus embraces may mean confronting those who try to harm “the least of these.”
Mark’s Gospel challenges us to consider the cost of following Jesus. And if we are not paying some cost for discipleship, maybe we aren’t following Jesus very closely.