Welcome to the Family

Rev. Myron McCoy

June 07, 2015
Mark 3:20-35

Family can be quite complicated. A family can love and nurture us, and on the other hand family can grossly misunderstand us. For some thinking about family is mostly comforting as it brings up memories of family dinners, and treasured bonding experiences. For others, thinking about family can be rather painful, bringing up an abusive relationship or the diminishment of one’s self esteem. Many of us fall somewhere in between, in our experiences of the messy and complicated lives of parents and siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles who sometimes made mistakes, but who mostly did the best they could.

Although family in 1st century Israel was understood a bit differently than we think about family now, it was even then a powerful force in shaping how people understood themselves in relationship to the world.

Early in the 3rd chapter of Mark, Jesus went to the synagogue, where on the Sabbath, he healed a man with a withered hand. This of course angered the religious leaders. So Jesus and the disciples then went to the sea, and they were followed by so many people that they were in danger of being crushed by the great crowds of those seeking to be healed. Being observant of the conditions Jesus told the disciples to have a boat ready so that they could get away if they needed to.

Perhaps Jesus was hoping that some time at the sea would provide a chance to get some needed quiet and reflection with the disciples. Unfortunately if this was the case, it didn’t work that way! Then, Jesus went up the mountain, and “called to him those who he wanted.” He appointed twelve apostles, to be sent out to proclaim the message and to cast out demons. Now before we go any further I want to say that there’s a problem with the New Testament knowledge of the human brain verses ours.  As whenever you hear about people who are possessed by demons in the Bible, it is most likely that all that was really going on is that a person was suffering from a brain disorder or a mental illness condition. (In this regard I would caution us to refrain from labeling a person with a brain disorder/mental illness and as being demon possessed.)  

In considering our text, Jesus finally gets home. The disciples and Jesus are just about to eat dinner… and the crowds gather again. Jesus goes to speak to them, and THIS is the last straw for his family. If you’re looking for snapshots of well-adjusted and happy parent-child relationships from the ancient world, the Bible probably wouldn’t be on a short list of sources. Consider Jesus’ family, for example. The New Testament preserves evidence suggesting that Jesus’ relationship with his mother at times could be strained. And with that no doubt, similar tensions would have existed between him and his siblings, as well.

Let’s look here in the 21st verse, which reads: “When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, ‘He’s out of his mind!'” (Translation: Common English Bible).

Christian tradition has had a difficult time reckoning with the troubling thought of family strife between Jesus and his kin. Consider what translators and even other Gospel authors have done with Mark 3:21:

  • The King James Version totally removes Jesus’ family from this part of the scene, saying: “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, ‘He is beside himself.'”
  • The New Revised Standard Version puts the disparagement of Jesus in the mouths of others, saying: “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.'”
  • The authors of the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, whose books were produced after this of Mark and who included scenes similar to Mark 3:20-35, and the other gospels omitted from their narratives any suggestion that Jesus’ family thought him to be crazy or out of his mind.

In the wider context of the story, both Jesus’ family and the influential religious leaders express an inability to understand who Jesus really is. The religious authorities here conclude he is possessed by Satan while the family assumes he has lost his sanity. It is critical to note that both diagnoses were roughly equivalent to each other.

The scene underscores how all were not immediately able to see Jesus as God’s agent.

Maybe Jesus’ relatives were dismayed that the first-born son wasn’t supporting his family but was gallivanting around Galilee as a self-appointed prophet. Or maybe they wanted him, as Messiah, to have bigger and better ambitions, such as promising a revolution instead of preaching and healing the sick. The Gospel of Mark does not explain; it merely sets up a showdown of sorts as the family arrives to seize Jesus.

As the story goes, Jesus just keeps on talking. The scribes say that he is possessed by the ruler of demons, and casts out demons by that authority. Jesus responds with some cryptic words about Satan and strong men and unforgiveable sins. These would all be interesting things to explore, but for this message I’ll to stick with the idea of family.

When the crowd says that his family is summoning him from outside the crowded building, Jesus answers with a shocking statement: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? … Look, here [these people seated around me] are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister and mother.”

This you can imagine is good news for those inside the house, who seek to identify with Jesus and his message. Yet it is also good news for Mark’s earliest readers who found themselves estranged from their biological families. However, this is bad news for Jesus’ relatives on the outside and others who have high regard for customary notions of honor and social stability.

Jesus redefines the criteria for who constitutes his true family. And, this goes beyond some sort of pay back for his mother’s and brothers’ opinion about his sanity. Jesus makes a claim about what it might mean to belong to other people. He makes a claim about identity.

Families, or “households,” were the primary social and economic units of first-century society. Jesus speaks to deeply embedded cultural assumptions when he determines his true family not by blood relations, but by those doing the will of God.

No wonder some people are bent on killing him in this book.

Jesus was hardly the first thinker to use familial terms to describe the membership of a movement or an in-group. Still, his comment would strike many of his contemporaries as dangerous.

I ask us the following questions: Who do we include in our circles of care?  Does it not make sense to include those who are doing the will of God?  Can we?  Will we?

I’ve often hear people speak of chosen family… the idea that sometimes those who we connect most deeply with are not those who we are related to by blood, but rather those who we choose to weave together around us in tapestries of nurture, care and support. Such an idea often resonates deeply with those who have been excluded or not fully accepted by their family of origin- whether it be connected with their chosen sexual identity, those they choose to befriend, those whom they chose to marry, some money issue, a mistake made along the way, or whatever.

I think the good news of this text is that we all can choose to be part of God’s chosen family through our attitudes and actions. Jesus sees us and can choose us all to be brothers and sisters. Jesus goes beyond conventional boundaries of understanding family–and can claim us all as his kin.

As Christ’s body in the world, the Church — we are implored and invited to do the same. What if we saw our family as potentially the folk in the pew next to us and others who seek to serve God all across the world? What would be the residual effects of goodwill and cooperation if broadened our boundaries by expanding our circle of care beyond that of our own families and communities?

O, there are many ways that we at First UMC Chicago Temple are already doing this. However, there are indeed ways that we could go deeper and broader as we think about our kinship with all people.

We are part of the kingdom… in fact the “kin-dom” of God that Jesus proclaims. As we are chosen, so may we choose others with abundant hospitality and grace, and it is in choosing others that I think we most directly experience God’s love and care.

In this season of Pentecost, we celebrate the spirit of God, the divine wind that blows among us. This wind blows away the stale and stagnant air that can sometimes settle into our lives, replacing it with something fresh and new and life-giving. May this wind blow us toward greater inclusiveness, helping us to really see and choose ALL of our brothers and sisters as part of God’s kin-dom among us! Let us welcome all to the family!

God’s family is open, inviting, welcoming, forgiving, healing, blessing, nurturing, and full of love.   It is what I know we are striving to be.  No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey (Guess what?) – You are welcome to this family!