I love my parents. They are two of the finest people I know. They are generous, open-hearted and loving; deeply committed to Christ and to the Church; faithful in their spiritual practice; always willing to give themselves in the service of God and others, even when that service costs them significant amounts of time, money and effort.
Yet, my coming to the monastery to test my vocation was difficult for them. They wondered how I could leave my career as a teacher to separate myself from the world by entering a monastery. They wondered why I would give up the possibility of having a family of my own to make vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. They questioned whether such a life was consonant with the teaching of Scripture. They wondered how they would explain my decision to members of our family and to their friends. They didn’t approve of my choice….at least at the beginning. (I’m happy to report that they’re much more enthusiastic these days.)
I’m wondering if some of you have had similar experiences. Have you ever found yourself at odds with members of your own family and close friends because of a choice you made, genuinely believing that you were responding to God’s call in your life? Have your commitment to Christ and your desire to do God’s will (as you understood it) ever caused tension in your relationships with those you love the most?
It seems that that was the case for Jesus. Mark’s gospel tells us that when Jesus’ family heard about all the commotion he was causing they came looking for him and tried to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind” (Mk 3:21).
In the story we have just read from the gospel, his mother and his brothers stand outside the house in which he is teaching and implore him to come out to them, presumably so that they can convince him to give up this madness and return home. We might well wonder if Jesus’ warning to his disciples in Matthew 10:36 – “one’s foes will be members of ones’ own household” – was rooted in struggles with his own family.
Let’s take a moment to consider two things: first, the concern Jesus’ family has for him, and second, his response to their concern.
It shouldn’t be hard to imagine what might have prompted Jesus’ family to seek him out and to beg him to come home. When he set out to become an itinerant preacher, Jesus must have left behind a job and a business that provided support for his family. The traditional assumption is that he had taken up his father’s trade as a carpenter, and was supporting his now-widowed mother by his labors. It must have been disturbing for his family to see him leave the security of his home and this employment to become one who, by his own admission, had no place to lay his head. And who knows at what cost to his family? [It can be especially difficult to make a choice for God when you know your loved ones are going to pay a cost as a result of your decision.]
But more than that, it was clear that he was becoming increasingly controversial and that the things he said and did were irritating the authorities. His family must have realized the trouble he was bringing upon himself – and perhaps on them as well. They must have recognized that there are powerful people in the world who can do a person great harm if they feel threatened by him, people on whose right side it is better to keep, people whose opposition can be very dangerous. Naturally they wanted to protect him, to shield him from this danger, to warn him of the likely consequences of his words and actions.
Furthermore, his reputation – and theirs – was suffering. People were shaking their heads and saying that he was mad. He’d left his home and abandoned his family – not for a promising job or career, not for any apparently “useful” reason – but to engage is a vaguely-defined “mission,” accompanied by a motley crew consisting of a few uneducated fishermen, a former tax collector, a revolutionary, and other miscellaneous folk. These were not the kind of people who could do him any good or further his career. What on earth did he hope to accomplish with these unlikely companions?
It’s no wonder that Jesus’ family was concerned about him. By his actions he was showing that principles which most people value above everything else – security, safety, and a good reputation in the eyes of others – meant nothing to him. How counter-cultural is that?
Most of us find these to be pretty important concerns. We care about our careers and our position in society. We tend to take few material or financial risks, and we give plenty of thought to our future security. We are generally more concerned about our own safety than about the rightness or wrongness of any action; if the truth be told, we seldom speak out if there is any real risk involved. We pay attention to what people say and think about us. “What will people say?” is one of the hidden questions we ask ourselves and others when contemplating a new course of action.
But Jesus seems indifferent to such things. His response is, in fact, quite shocking. Here are his mother and his brothers, coming to see him out of their genuine concern for his well-being, and he… – well, he brushes them off! Surely those gathered in the house with him would have understood and been able to occupy themselves for a few minutes while he went outside to respond to his family’s request to speak with him. But he refuses to see them. In fact, he claims that the people inside are his “real” family!
His own family has shown how far they are from recognizing that his ministry is the work of God himself, and so he turns towards those who have received and welcomed him, those who have taken his ministry seriously and who are now working together with him to fulfill the will of God. These he calls his ‘family.’
In Jesus’ day and in the centuries to follow, to choose to align oneself with Jesus could be a very costly decision. It often meant being ostracized, persecuted, even put to death. Undoubtedly the early Christians reading Mark’s gospel found these words comforting, especially when their allegiance to Jesus resulted in friction within their communities, their places of worship, and their own families. We can imagine how they might have been treated with fear and suspicion – who is this Jesus, anyway? – and how their relatives might have pressured them to conform to societal norms.
Christianity is, in this part of the world at least, no longer a radical belief system. It seldom takes people away from parents and siblings; believing in Jesus rarely results in persecution or death. It has stopped being a challenge to the system – in many ways now it is the system. Christians who argue loudest for “family values” are often those most interested in preserving the status quo. Jesus’ radical message simply doesn’t make much sense in the context of a powerful, dominant, and pervasively Christianized society.
Can we imagine something different?
Can we imagine letting go of our understanding of ‘family’ as our circle of blood relatives, spouses or partners?
Can we imagine revisioning ‘family’ to refer primarily to those who hunger for a relationship with God and who are eager to accomplish God’s will on the earth?
Can we image our giving our primary allegiance to those who are love and serve God?
What would happen if we set aside our needs for security, safety and the approval of others to radically seek out God’s will for us in the context of this new ‘family’?
How might we participate in this new ‘family,’ rooted and bound together in our common commitment to Jesus and to the mission of God in the world?
How might this ‘family’ live and work together in and for the world?
Jesus finds his kinship with those who do God’s will even more compelling than his kinship to his own relatives. As a result he is considered as “mad,” eccentric – and he certainly is! He is eccentric because his life revolves not around his natural family or even humankind in general, but around God and God’s purposes in the world. We often struggle to accomplish our own will, to realize our own personal goals, but at the center of Jesus’ life is the desire to please and glorify God above all things. So, who’s off center? Jesus – or us?
Here is an invitation to begin thinking of ourselves and of our lives differently, to center our lives in God and in the doing of God’s will, to identify with others who share this commitment as our real “family,” to join with them in a common effort to realize the dream of God on this earth. So, what do you think? Would Jesus have recognized you as a member of his family? Would he find you ‘eccentric’ enough?
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