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Jesus' Family Values – Br. David Vryhof

Mark 3:31-35

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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16 Comments

  1. Sr. Brigid on February 10, 2015 at 13:37

    Your description of Jesus abandoning his life 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” sounds very much like our blessed St. Francis of Assisi, who stripped off his clothes and denounced his biological father saying that is father is now our Lord Jesus. Now here was a radical who followed God’s call to serve the poor and seek peace in the world. Thank you for your inspirational message.

  2. John Gishe on February 10, 2015 at 10:57

    “Christianity is, in this part of the world at least, no longer a radical belief system.” It is only not a radical system if we choose not to love, to care, to be a peace-maker, to the fullest! Jesus is still a radical to the nice, upper middle class people who are both inside and outside the church. I say this as a California Episcopal Republican (Talk about being a radical in a liberal denomination!). After 40 years as an adult follower of Jesus, I hope to hear God say to me at my death, “You were not a fool to follow my Son.”

  3. CMAC on February 10, 2015 at 08:14

    But – who stood at the foot of the cross? C

  4. Fr. Bob Spencer on September 27, 2013 at 15:19

    Entering the ordained ministry 41 years ago, I had no idea of the call God had made to me to be the radical Christian that Jesus taught us to see and live. The first call came with a joint call of my wife and I as we discovered we were headed in two different directions and I was given a choice of God and the Church or her and the children. At the same time, it was the most difficult decision and the easiest decision of my life. A new direction began in my journey that carried me from the east to the west, not knowing fully why. One morning looking out the window at the desert around the town I was in, it became clear that God had been calling me to the desert to discover the spiritual; journey I was on– the spiritual journey to that radical Christian life He had been offering me all along. Since that time in the early 1980’s I have been struggling, with God’s help to follow that life in the world. It leads in many ways, but the longer the journey, the more exciting it becomes. Now, at almost 75 years old, I have been trying for 6 months to retire a second time, but find a restlessness that calls me beck to the journey in new ways. What’s around the next corner of life? I don’t know, but, with God’s help, I am glad to be on the path to finding out. Thank you Br. David for your insightful writing, encouraging me to remain oppe to God and God’s call.

  5. Anders on September 27, 2013 at 12:16

    Thanks for the perspective. Eccentricity may not be my goal, but I welcome your insight how my concept of family is evolving. Do some people actually get everything they need from a self-contained nuclear family? I didn´t nor can I provide it all for my sons. Expanding the width and breadth of family helps make me more grounded. It is not limited to those who might outwardly share a commitment to doing God´s will, for it includes homeless men who may cast a look of blessing on my sons because I did not “protect” them from their presence. Humanity is my family, and I am grateful.

  6. Laura Ricard on September 27, 2013 at 10:54

    I am a member of Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst and in mid-August I left Amherst for a 9-month sojourn in Seattle w/ my daughter to help care for my first grandchild and to revise a manuscript. I always read “Brother, Give Us A Word” in Amherst, but it has become especially meaningful out here because of the distance from my church family and my loved ones.

    I was in a local used book store looking for books relevant to my work and I found the SSJE Rule. As Bill McKibben observed, sometimes there is no better evidence of the work of the Spirit in our lives when exactly the book we need is placed in our hands. Each morning my practice is to listen to Gregorian chant on Pandora and read “Brother,” and the Rule is already touching me in the deepest parts of my self. You at SSJE are my brothers, and I am so thankful for our kinship.

  7. Agatha Nolen on September 27, 2013 at 07:30

    The last paragraph is the BROTHER GIVE US A WORD for today (9/27/2013). It is so simple and so succinct in how we should approach everyone we meet whether they attend a church or not. For those that may be knew to Christianity, it describes the progression of the Christian walk as Jesus told the story-“I won’t condemn you, but I invite you to a better life of living water.” For those who are already disciples, it is a roadmap. First we think of ourselves differently and how our life can change to more honor Christ (introspective). Then we join with others who are like-minded, to both be nourished and nourish in our faith. And ultimately, we begin to see that we are a vital part of the story in renewing God’s kingdom here on Earth. How can it be said more beautifully in its simplicity than the closing paragraph? Amen.

  8. Athena Bowers on February 7, 2013 at 21:02

    I have often wondered about this: Jesus’ attitude toward traditional family. And how it should affect me in my life. I have found it a very hard teaching. At the same time I have loved G*d greatly from the age of 4, as the primary being of my life. It is with my daughters this has been the most tested, and, in particular with our younger daughter, I have been too much the protective parent, to her and my detriment. I am gaining a new, deeper understanding of Jesus’ words about families, and the danger, in my case, of binding our children too closely to us. It hurts them and us. Jesus’ Wisdom continues to challenge me and to feed me.

  9. George Wiley on February 6, 2013 at 08:51

    “Who’s off center?” — Beautiful. Thank you.

  10. Mino Sullivan on February 6, 2013 at 07:57

    Dear brother David,
    You are such an inspiration; always encouraging us, motivating us, asking us to step up and step out of our convert zone towards God and true fulfillment. My heart says, “Yes!” each time I hear your call. It’s so clear, so obvious that you are right and know of what you speak. But, taking action is so difficult. Next month I will begin training to facilitate an alternative to violence program in prisons. This is my small step. Maybe, one small step a month is a way to go.
    Thank you and blessings to you, dear brother,
    Mino

    • DLa Rue on September 27, 2013 at 05:34

      I think the usual phrase is “comfort zone,” but the one used here is quite evocative.

      Taking a step into one’s own personal “convert zone” is the risk-taking step under discussion, indeed…the journey into a limnal space where transitions can happen.

      I’ll be pondering that phrase now for a bit. I think I’ve been deliberately avoiding my own convert zone.

  11. John Saynor on February 1, 2012 at 07:40

    I can relate completly. My parents were devout Christians. Dad died when I was 14 and Mother who was born poor always dreaded poverty. She and my father had done well financially in their short marriage and she was left reasonably well off. I was supposed to carry on in the family tradition of making money!

    When I announced that I was going to Bible College to train for ministry, she was horrified. “Your father would be so ashamed of you!” It didn’t work! She eventually came around.

    You can imagine her horror a number of years ago, when I made the journey from evangelicalism to Anglicanism! Back to seminary…to be ordained…a priest! Yikes, I don’t think she ever used the word!

    Well, all along, I was doing personal battle with my sexuality and at age 35 “came out of the closet” I don’t need to say anything about her reaction to that. But for me, it was be who I believed God created me to be, or kill myself.

    I think I have been radical enough don’t you?

    It was, I can honestly say, the priests and brothers at SSJE in Bracebridge, Ontario who saved my life!

    John Saynor

    • Christina on September 27, 2013 at 09:24

      Oh dear, John. Your life story exactly mirrors a dear friend of mine. He does not enjoy good health, a peaceful life, and still has to put up with a family who don’t acknowledge his sexuality, and by-and-large they ignore him. It breaks my heart. I am almost old enough to be his mother, and what we do to one another is so very hurtful. I don’t know what his ministry meant for him. For my own children, I have ‘tried’ to keep in mind Kahlil Gibrans words: And he said: Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you………’
      It is hard to let them go, but it has to be. Christina

  12. jane goldring on January 30, 2012 at 11:06

    dear david thankyou for that message. i get told by some of the girls i golf with oh jane is good she goes to church all the time and is active in her parish. i told them i go to church to receive the help and guidence i need. i give rides to dolores as she doesn’t always have the car and i feel i can pass on when i didn’t have a car and was given rides by different people. i enjoy being in the Altar Guild as it helps me to learn more about our church and the church seasons. i have also brought vauable information back from the monstary when i have been there for holy week. jane

  13. Lynn Harrington on January 30, 2012 at 08:11

    Very challenging yet very gospel -centered message. Thank you.
    Lynn Harrington

  14. Roberta on January 28, 2012 at 10:43

    In this missive, you remind me of Francis Chan’s “Radical Love.” In rare ways do I see myself and other Christians actually living the wholly God centered life and yet, how do I know? God knows the heart and on this I must rely; yet I challenge myself, with each decision or no decision, how does this serve God? How do I serve God? Thanks for an illuminating entry.

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