Jesus was busy speaking to those who came to see him; people were crowding round him, and he was teaching them. According to Mark’s Gospel (see Mark 3:20-35), he couldn’t even eat, such was his popularity, so his family went to take charge of him. In both Matthew (12:46-50) and Luke (8:19-21), his family arrive, anxious to speak to him. Either way, Jesus’ mother and brothers arrive, as he is speaking to the crowds, and the message is passed to him that they are here. At this, Jesus clears the crowds out, and goes to greet his family … well, actually, those of you who know the Gospels may have realised that it didn’t happen that way. In Matthew, Jesus gestures to his disciples and says that his mother, brothers and sisters are those who do the will of his Father in heaven; in Mark, he looks at those sitting around him, and says much the same thing, except Mark uses the words the will of God; Luke’s Gospel has no gesture or look at those listening to him, but he says that his mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.
Now, we can focus on the textual differences, or on what might actually have happened back in the first century, but I’m not really qualified for that, and there are, I suspect, commentaries that do this. What is common to all three Gospels, whatever their differences in phrasing, is that Jesus reenvisages not just the word ‘family’, but the very idea of familial relationships. Whatever Jesus’ family want to speak to him about, and how they view his activities at this stage, isn’t really the point. The point is Jesus’ message about who his family are; this is a relationship based on those who do the will of God. While using slightly different words, this is what all three Gospels mean. Those who do God’s will, those who listen to God’s word and do it: those are the ones who are Jesus’ mother, brothers and sisters. Not those outside the house who are waiting to speak to him. Slightly brutal? Possibly, but Jesus makes it clear elsewhere in the Gospels that in order to follow God, we must put that before our family; our first love must be for God.
I’ve always wondered what happened next. Did Jesus’ family go away disappointed, convinced he was lost to them? Did Jesus go out and speak with them, after this? Or did his family join the crowds, listening to the teaching of their son and brother, and gaining a deeper insight into what he was doing? It’s not actually necessary to know, however much it might be nice to, and I suspect in wondering I may actually be just wishing to undo the impact of what Jesus’ has just said about who his family were. There is some evidence that Jesus’ family continued on the path Jesus was on: his mother was at the crucifixion, and James, the brother of Jesus, was one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church. Nevertheless, that is not what is important here. What is vital is the fact that those who are Jesus’ family are those who do the will of God. Jesus made it clear then, and we can only assume that it is still so today. That we, who follow Jesus, are his brothers and sisters; that we, who do the will of God, are Jesus’ family; that those who do the will of God are our family, also.
This does, of course, raise other questions. How do we tell what the will of God is, in order to do it? How do we ensure that others are doing the will of God, in order to relate to them as brothers and sisters? (woe betide you if I treat you as a sister or brother and then discover you aren’t doing the will of God …). But do we need to answer those questions? Should they be our priority? Well, I suspect the answer to that is both yes and no. Obviously, there does have to be some sense of discipline in the church, some way of saying ‘this isn’t appropriate’, ‘this behaviour is wrong’. A reading of 1 Corinthians should make that clear; the Corinthian church weren’t following God as they should have done. Yet, also, I think we can concentrate too hard on what the will of God is, or rather on what we think the will of God is, and whether other people are keeping it. This attitude can so easily be used as an excuse for judging or condemning others. While God does call people in specific ways, there is also the fact that God is a God of love. (Read 1 Corinthians again). God’s will, surely, is also a loving one, and it is that – love – that we are called to in this instance.
Doesn’t that make a certain sense? Jesus is creating a new type of family; a family based on the will of God, or (as Matthew puts it) on Jesus’ father in heaven; surely this family is not based on legalistic practices, or check lists of behaviours, but on love. This new family is based on those who love God … and, therefore, will do God’s will, as best as they are able. Now, we can sit and evaluate who in our church this actually applies to (which, of course, won’t be based at all on our own personal preferences …); we can put certain requirements in place before we can treat those God loves as our brothers and sisters; or we can hear the word of God and put it into practice. Which in this case does seem to mean that we treat those in Jesus’ family as our brothers and sisters. Not always easy, especially with some of the more complicated characters in our churches; not in a way that puts us into personal danger, or means we have to out our trust in complete strangers from the word go; not even, necessarily, in a way that means we neglect the needs of our own families; but, still, in a way that means we are following the call of God to love as Jesus loves us.