Jesus’ Understanding for the Misunderstood – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Mark 3:13-19, 31-35

The scene captured in this Gospel passage does not typically show up in beautiful stained glass windows in churches. This is a troubling scene. In the family system it is a rough day for Jesus, his siblings, and his mother, Mary.[i]

Here is the back story. Away on a mountaintop Jesus had just appointed his twelve apostles, and then he returned to Nazareth, which is the setting for this Gospel lesson.[ii]  A considerable crowd has surrounded Jesus outside his family’s home as he teaches. There is very mixed energy in the crowd. Jesus’ mother and his brothers must have been inside their home, because the Gospel of Mark reports they then go outside and send word through the crowd for Jesus. Why? Is it so they can stand with Jesus and give their public assent to his teaching? No. Does his family want to protect Jesus? No. We read the family makes their appearance to restrain Jesus.[iii] The verb used here to describe their reaction to Jesus literally means “he is out of his mind” or “he has gone mad!”[iv] What we witness is an attempt at a family intervention.

The terse situation seems only to escalate when we hear Jesus’ reaction to the report that his family has appeared on the outskirts of the crowd. Jesus seems to respond rhetorically or dismissively: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, Jesus says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

The Gospel of Matthew, Mark, and Luke remember this charged scene almost verbatim. The Gospel according to John does not remember this encounter; however John refers to a strain in Jesus’ relationships – a strain not with Jesus’ apostles but with his own siblings. His brothers seem exasperated with Jesus, what he was doing, and saying, and where. We read in the Gospel according to John, “For not even his brothers believed in him.”[v]

So back to the crowd surrounding Jesus outside of his family home. We can interpret what’s going here from three different vantage points: from the perspective of the crowd, from the perspective of the family, and from the perspective of Jesus.

The constituency of the crowd covers the whole spectrum: ranging from those who are convinced Jesus is the Messiah, to those convinced he is the devil incarnate, and with many people in between those opposite poles. As we know, in the end Jesus is abandoned by the constituency: virtually everyone – friend and foe alike.

From the perspective of Jesus’ brothers, this is a tough go. What was it like to grow up with Jesus as their older brother? They surely would have known all along of the prophesies and stories about Jesus’ very inexplicable birth and his predicted destiny. They, like Jesus, may have been targets of teasing, or ridicule, or judgment over the years, the decades: the mockery about their mother and Jesus’ so-called “virgin birth”; the mockery about Jesus, especially when he who was supposed to be so special had not delivered on the prophesies. Even by his late 20s, Jesus was not getting on with it… except for now… however now he is not showing family deference to either his mother nor his brothers. I am constructing this scenario from the limited information we have. I think Jesus’ family had to do a lot of explaining about him during the silent years, the decades where there is no scriptural or historical record. It was not only his mother but also his brothers who were asking the rhetorical question, “How can this be?” as they tried to make sense out of Jesus’ life.[vi] Did Jesus seem withdrawn? Did he seem brilliant? Was he weird? We don’t know.

And who knows how it was for Mary, Jesus’ mother? How did she understand Jesus as he grew up and finally, finally found his voice? The Gospel according to Luke remembers back to Mary’s receiving the prophecy about the child-Messiah she would bring into the world: how costly this would be for both Jesus and for her, personally. The prediction was that a “sword” would pierce both Mary’s and Jesus’ souls.[vii] I suspect this “sword” pierced Mary’s soul while Jesus was still in his infancy, as early as when Joseph had fled with Mary and Jesus into Egypt to escape the slaughter of young children by King Herod. Jesus was spared his life but, but neither Jesus nor Mary were spared the trauma. I imagine the sword pierced Mary’s soul repeatedly, a wound that never healed, the pietà she had experienced all her life.[viii]

The third perspective in his Gospel scene is Jesus’ own perspective. What did he see and sense is going on with this crowd and with his family? Why does he respond as he does about who his mother and brothers really are? His family would have every reason to feel excluded when Jesus publicly claims that his “family” is neither his mother Mary nor his brothers but rather everyone who does God’s will. Can you imagine his brothers’ indignation? “After everything we have been through because of Jesus, and he won’t even claim us as his family…” Jesus’ family may have felt publicly shamed. But from Jesus’ perspective, he is not speaking about exclusion but rather inclusion. Everyone belongs. Everyone has a place in the heart of God whom he calls “Father.” In the Gospels, Jesus never speaks of Joseph as his Father. Jesus would eventually teach a prayer that begins “Our Father in heaven…” Jesus would eventually teach about sharing his body and blood, not just with his bloodline – his family of origin – but with everyone. Saint Paul, a generation later, would take Jesus’ teaching about belonging to the next level, speaking metaphorically of Jesus’ followers being like different members of one body: like eyes, hands, mouths, feet all belonging to one body.[ix] Saint Paul even uses “adoption” language: we all belong to the family of Christ; we are “children by adoption.”[x] Children by adoption.

We have many unanswered questions from this particular Gospel account. Here is where we can claim good news amidst this complicated interaction in Nazareth with Jesus’ family, friends, and foes.

We have here a picture of Jesus being “fully human,” as we say in the Creeds. His full humanity is on full display here in such a vulnerable and exposing way. The comfort we may claim from this passage is that Jesus understands. Understands you. However complicated your life, however unfair you may feel your life to be, however misunderstood or abandoned or judged or orphaned you may some days find yourself to be, Jesus understands. Jesus knows what it is like to play the cards you have been handed in life. Jesus, a very real human being whom we remember as our Messiah. Jesus understands. Understands you, because he’s been there.

One of the greatest comforts in life is being in the presence of someone whom we know loves us, and who understands us, and who gently asks us the question, “How are you?” “How are you, really?” I imagine all of us know about this kind of experience when someone who is safe and understanding makes time in their day and space in their heart to ask us the question, “How are you, really?” That tender question is Jesus’ question for all of us, individually. Our response is our prayer.

[i] The Gospel accounts for this scene are virtually identical in Mark 3:3-35, Matthew 12:46-50, and Luke 7:19-21. Where is Joseph? Was he simply away for the day; was he already dead; or were the Gospel writers trying to protect the Virgin birth and Joseph not being Jesus’ father? We don’t know.

[ii] Mark 3:13-19.

[iii] Mark 3:19b-21.

[iv] From Mark 3:21in Interpretation – Mark; a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, by Lamar Williamson, Jr. (1983); pp. 83-84.

[v] Mark 3:21; John 7:2-5.

[vi] See Luke 1:26-38.

[vii] Luke 2:34-35.

[viii] Pietà, a painting or sculpture of the seated Virgin Mary holding the body of her dead son, Jesus, in her lap, the word from the Latin pietatem“piety, pity, faithfulness to natural ties.”

[ix] 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.

[x] Ephesians 1:5 – “[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will….”

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  1. Ron Tremblay on January 25, 2024 at 21:41

    Thank you Curtis. Once again, you open the scriptures and offer us new light and richness on the Word. I am Grateful to be connected to SSJE.

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