Families and family life can bring great blessings to us. Support in times of illness, occasions of fun and happiness shared together and much else besides. Few of us though will go through life without some upsets within our families; disagreements and the whispered words: ‘They don’t speak to us anymore.’
Not a huge amount is written about Jesus’ family. The evangelists conserve their precious parchments for other matters. Yet, there are tantalising clues dotted about. We can have a rather saccharine, sentimental view of Jesus’ family; the ‘holy family’ as it is sometimes called. Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus all living in harmony with one another and providing us with the example of the perfect family. However, a closer reading of the gospel accounts paints a rather different picture.
Mark’s gospel has only a few oblique references to the family of Jesus most of which are included in today’s gospel reading. (Mark 3.20-35) Jesus has just appointed the twelve whom he named apostles. There is a sense in which these alongside other key people become his ‘family’, his support mechanism for the duration of his ministry. Mark then tells us that he went ‘home’ which we can only assume at this stage is actually the home of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum which has already been referred to. Such is the appeal of Jesus’ teaching and healing work that crowds of people, hearing that he is back in town, now gather around the house demanding his attention. It was even becoming impossible to prepare meals and eat them. Mark then tells us that Jesus’ family got to hear of this situation. News was spreading even without the benefit of ‘Facebook’. They rush over, presumably from Nazareth, to sort the situation; ‘to take charge of him’ for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ (verse 21) or in modern parlance, ‘he had flipped.’
Who was Jesus’ family? Growing up in in Middle Eastern culture, it would mean more than mum and dad and two point four kids. As is the case in many cultures in the world, family means extended family. In this verse, no mention is made of particular relatives, so we can surmise that the first on the scene to ‘sort Jesus out’ would not have been his immediate family who appear to arrive later. Possibly it was the uncles and cousins who did not know of the special things about Jesus which Mary treasured in her heart. From what they had heard, they believed Jesus was bringing ‘shame’ on their family. That’s a concept which is still very real for families from eastern and African backgrounds today. Actually, I think it plays a part in all our families.
So, Jesus faces a challenge from his family. The ministry which he is undertaking in the power of the Holy Spirit is seen as disturbing and questionable. It does not sit well with a good number of the extended family. He needs to be ‘sorted out’.
But it is not only Jesus’ family who come to Capernaum to try to put Jesus right. Mark tells us that teachers of the law arrive from Jerusalem. They have a different take on the strange things which Jesus is up to. ‘He is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ (verse 22) They correctly deduce that Jesus is working under the influence of a spiritual power rather than just being ‘out of his mind’ but they do not want to countenance the possibility that that power might just be from God. If they did, they would have to follow Jesus. Instead, they ascribe his power to the demonic forces and try to make out that he is using evil to drive out evil. Jesus has no trouble in telling them a parable about how a divided house will never be able to stand. The strong man, Satan, must first be bound if you hope to enter his house and carry off his possessions. Thus, if you wish to free someone from the work of the evil one, the evil one himself must be bound. That is Jesus’ work in the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if you question the work of the Holy Spirit; blaspheme the Spirit, you deny that power which can release you from evil and allow forgiveness. That’s why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is described as the eternal sin. To deny the Holy Spirit is to deny God’s gift of new life; eternal life. It’s rather like cutting off the branch you’re sitting on.
Whatever was the reaction of the teachers of the law to Jesus’ demolishing of their argument, we are not told, but his teaching is important for us in understanding the true nature of Jesus and how we respond to him.
Mark now returns us to Jesus’ family. Mary, the mother of Jesus has now arrived along with his brothers. It must be getting serious when Mum arrives. But where is dad? Again, we can only speculate, it is usually assumed that Joseph was much older than Mary, a fairly usual situation in that day and culture. As we hear nothing of Joseph once Jesus’ ministry begins, the assumption is that he died in the thirty or so years since Jesus birth. The protestant understanding is that Mary and Joseph went on to have a number of children naturally after Jesus’ birth and they are the brothers alluded to here. They would have looked after and provided for Mary after Joseph’s death, so it was natural they would travel together. A catholic understanding is that Mary remains ‘forever virgin’ and the ‘brothers’ referred to here and elsewhere in the new testament are really cousins.
Whatever some family members may have thought of Jesus’ state of mind, Mary know the score only too well. We can guess that his brothers had an idea too. One of them, James, plays a significant role in the early church.
When they arrive, access to the house is still difficult on account of the crowds. They send in for Jesus and the crowd sitting close to him in the house give him the news that his mother and brothers are looking for him outside. (verses 31-32) Jesus replies: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ (verse 33) Looking at those seated close to him he goes on to answer his own question: ‘Who ever does God’s will is my brother and my sister and my mother.’ (verse 34)
Whether Mary and the brothers heard those words as they waited outside amongst the suffocating crowd is doubtful. They appear a bit hurtful like some other times when Jesus puts down his mother. (e.g. John 2.4) Yet, every indication is that she would have understood. Jesus is teaching the crowds that to do God’s will; by implication to follow him in the way of forgiveness and restoration to new life, is to become intimately linked to him, as close as the closest human relationships that he had on earth.
So, what do we gain from reflecting on Mark’s telling of these instances from Jesus’ life?
1. That Jesus’ ministry was guided and driven by the power of God which had manifested itself in the Holy Spirit at his baptism. Jesus’ ministry on earth was not like that of other rabbis or teachers. It was propelled by a power which demanded attention. On a human level, he appeared out of his mind or possessed.
2. That we need to appreciate and embrace that same Holy Spirit otherwise we die. To not be open to the Spirit is to blaspheme it; to deny that very life of God which brings us to eternal life.
3. That Jesus invites us to be his mother and brothers and sisters. He calls us into a close intimate relationship with him and that relationship should take precedence over all others.
Perhaps the question above all for us is this: are we happy to own Jesus as a member of our family, to be known as his follower? Or do we feel embarrassment…even a little shame at being known as Christian in today’s world?
Trinity 2 10.06.2018