The Desert Fathers and Mothers were some of the earliest Christians to take up the monastic life. Among their recorded Sayings we find the following anecdote: A monk was told that his father had died. “Do not blaspheme,” he said to the messenger. “My Father cannot die.”[i] This reply, so seemingly hard and uncaring, is meant to shock our ears and awaken our spiritual curiosity. A relative bond – that between an earthly son and his now deceased father – is set in dramatic relief against an ultimate and indissoluble bond – the relationship between a child of God and his heavenly Father. The desert hermit to whom these words are attributed lived a rare and radical vocation, pursuing a way of life totally organized around this ultimate and indissoluble relationship. As a prophet of ultimate truth, his reply to the messenger jumps the tracks of conventional language, but his words do not negate the factuality of the messenger’s statement. Nor do they preclude feelings of loss or grief on the part of the monk. His reply, rather, holds those human realities in their proper, relative perspective – as small when compared to the greatness, the goodness, and the ultimacy of God.
In this evening’s passage from Luke, we encounter Jesus as the teller of Ultimate Truth in the midst of a world whose unquestioned logic, traditions, priorities and values are often myopically relative: concerned with things “passing away” rather than those “that shall endure.”[ii] This short passage centers around the primacy of one’s family of origin and its power to determine a person’s ultimate loyalties and alliances in Jesus’s time. Jesus has just finished a lengthy discourse including both public teaching to the crowds and a private teaching to his disciples on the purpose of parables. It is a lengthy exposition of ultimate truths. Jesus is then told that his mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see him. This appearance of Jesus’ family at the edge of a crowd and at the conclusion of a teaching discourse is an event recounted in Matthew and Mark as well.
What does Jesus mean when he says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it”? Now that Jesus is grown and engaged full time in the proclamation of the kingdom, is he here relegating his biological family to the sidelines? Is he spurning their unique claims of love, their special relationship with him as their son and sibling? I don’t think so. But I do think he is framing them as relative: relative to his ultimate vocation, and relative to the new order of relationships made possible among those who are seeking the kingdom of God. Jesus’s re-framing of the role of tribe and village, lineage and family invites us into kinship with him in that new order, and into the ongoing realization of our kinship with one another as a family of faith in him.
The gospel of Luke contains at least two other incidents in which Jesus places his relationship with his family of origin within such a relative frame. The first is during his boyhood disappearance of three days while a large group of his relatives, including his parents, are on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Upon finally finding, him asking questions of the scribes in the Temple, his parents ask, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” to which Jesus replies, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In this very matter-of-fact question, Luke’s Jesus gently but clearly asserts his growing intimacy with the God he knew as Father and the ultimacy of that relationship above all others.
There is another such re-framing incident, which Luke places a little later in his Gospel than the one we just heard. It also takes place at the end of a long teaching discourse. “A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those that hear the word of God and obey it!’ Jesus’ response can seem troublingly dismissive of his mother Mary and insensitive to this woman’s blessing if we take this translation at face value. This word translated as “rather” in English implies a contrast, whereas it can equally be translated as an intensifier. Another translation reads: “More blessed still are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Scriptural scholar Elizabeth Johnson paraphrases Jesus’ words: “What you said is true as far as it goes, but there is more to be said.”[iii] The woman’s blessing is true to her experience, and it captures a facet of the truth about Jesus and about his mother, Mary. Jesus deftly affirms this, and then gently expands upon the woman’s blessing by zooming the camera lens outward. The highly specialized and individual vocation of birth-giving, breast-feeding, and parenting Jesus is indeed awesome, such as Mary fulfilled it. Even more awesome is the universal vocation of hearing and acting upon God’s word, such as Mary fulfilled it. And such as this woman in the crowd and anyone else listening to or reading Luke’s gospel can also fulfill it.
When Jesus is told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you,” and he replies “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it,” his words do not exclude or shun his family of origin. By zooming the camera lens outward to include all who hear and do in response to the Word, he widens the circle of true kinship to include his family, though not on the grounds of their relation by blood. It is as if Jesus says to those listening to his teaching: “My family are outside looking for me, and family members usually have a special claim on one another’s attention. Fair enough. But I tell you that anyone who hears the word of God and does it – whether sitting inside at my feet or standing outside at the edge, whether related to me by blood or totally unknown to me – that person and I are kindred.”
This is a radical teaching, and has indelibly marked the Church’s self-understanding as a new family in the Spirit. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we encounter the image of Jesus as firstborn or eldest brother “within a large family” whose members are called into kinship by God. That family transcends cultural, racial, or gender distinctions. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” In its ever-expanding and inclusive embrace, the Church is imagined as consummating the true meaning of family.
What might all this mean for our relationship with our own family of origin? And what does it mean for our relationship with one another, whose spiritual kinship – whether we like it or not – has been forever sealed by our baptism?
Our biological family members have a profound influence upon our lives. Our ethnic ancestry and the material wealth or chromosomal traits we inherit shape us even before we are born. After we come into the world, the presence or absence of our parents, siblings, and other relatives, and the ways they socialize, educate, encourage or ignore us likewise all leave lasting marks on who we become. But whatever our particular family history, our relationships with our families are complex. Anxiety or misunderstanding, estrangement or codependency, or the simple struggle to remain connected across time and distance are the norm rather than the exception. Jesus loved and obeyed his earthly parents, and they clearly shaped his vocation and calling. But he also understood God to be his ultimate Father, and the ultimate Father of every human child. He practiced surrender when he could work no miracles in his hometown and when his brothers did not believe in him. From the cross, he showed compassion and trust as he called his Mother and his beloved Disciple to be a new family unto one other. Similarly, we can strive to love our families as wholeheartedly as we are able, while patiently trusting that “God is doing more” for each of them “than we can ask or imagine.”[iv] We can accept that we cannot be God to them, and we can refrain from asking them to be God for us.
Our spiritual kinship with one another in Christ is, as I said earlier, a matter of ongoing realization. A monastic community is one manifestation of the family of the Church, and this community’s practice of calling one another “brother” reminds us of this. We do not choose our family members. As our Rule of Life phrases it, “we are given to one another by Christ and he calls us to accept one another as we are. By abiding in him we can unite in a mutual love which goes deeper than personal attraction.”[v] It can be very hard work to “hear the word of God and do it,” which is why we all need a “particular expression of community which will be the best means of our conversion.”[vi] A community offers fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers in Christ, with whom to laugh and weep, bicker and cooperate, serve and receive service. As with regular worship, and as with our blood relations, we won’t always feel the love. It is in many small moments of emulating Christ’s self-spending love, unconscious of its particular reward, that we realize our kinship with Christ as his family. The blood of Christ flows in each of our veins, and it is this union with Him that binds us all in an ultimate and indissoluble relationship with a Father who cannot die.
[i] Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I.5.
[ii] Collect for Proper 20, Book of Common Prayer.
[iii] Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. p.247.
[iv] Ephesians 3:20-21.
[v] The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Chapter Five.
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