During the course of the exchange that is our New Testament text this morning, Jesus asks, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?"
This is my third sermon during this season of Lent that centers upon a question. Three Sundays ago the question was of a more rhetorical nature, put to God's people by the prophet, speaking for God. It was a question about fasting. It had to do with the people's worship and service of God. God's question to the people rendered an implicit judgment upon their religious ritual, especially their fasting, at a time when their corporate life and their concern for one another, and especially the weak and vulnerable among them, was at an ebb: "Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?" God asks [Isaiah 58:5]. The obvious answer was, "No." The fast that God chooses requires a mending of ways, a genuine compassion for the needy and oppressed, a resolve to do justice and to repair relationships strained by selfishness and strife.
Last Sunday the question was one posed by Jesus in Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount": "What more are you doing than others?" [Matt. 5:47]. This question, likewise, is rhetorical, but it also invites us to explore the ways that we might attempt to provide an answer. Are we actually called to do more than others? Or are we called to do it better? Is this a call to perfection or to a kind of works-righteousness? No, neither of these. Rather it is a call to a more inclusive, magnanimous kind of love--a love that does not stop at the boundaries of social grouping or national identity or favored person status.
This morning we encounter another question posed by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Mark and Luke also report a similar exchange. This time the question is less obviously rhetorical, at least to us who hear it second-hand. This is to say, it is not transparently obvious how to answer the question. Who are Jesus' mother and brothers--if they are not his mother and brothers?! If Jesus' family is not his family, then who is? And are we to think about our own families in the same way?
Recall that Matthew says that while Jesus was speaking to the crowds, his mother and brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. According to Mark, they were there out of some concern for Jesus. They had heard a rumor that Jesus had gone out of his mind! [Mark 3:21] Matthew does not explain their presence in this way. He simply says that someone gets word to Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside wanting to talk to him. And Jesus simply rejoins with the question that holds our attention this morning: "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?"
As I reflected upon this passage, it occurred to me that it would not be a very good one for Mothers' Day! Jesus expends no sentiment here on behalf of motherhood. He hardly seems sensitive to the wishes of his own biological mother. He offers no word of appreciation for all that Mary has done for him. If anything, just the opposite seems to be the case--a quick dismissal of any thought that his mother--or his brothers--have any special claim upon him.
It would probably be stretching a point to suggest that Jesus is actually calling his own parentage into question. I know of nothing in the New Testament or in early Christian writings that would make us wonder if Mary was really his mother. On the other hand, there must have been questions about his father. And there still are questions today about his brothers and sisters. The real issue here, however, is not one of biological relationship. The real issue seems to be one of biological importance. Jesus seems to be calling into question the special importance that we tend to attach to biological identity. And we ought not to underestimate how important this biological connection is usually thought to be. We have special terms of derogation and insult for the child who is born out of wedlock, and for the child whose father may be unknown.
Human biology being what it is, until the advent of in vitro fertilization there could hardly be any doubt who was the "real" mother of a child, but there was often room for doubt about the father. Thus there could also be question about the extent of one's biological relationship to one's siblings. Jesus appears to be saying that none of this really matters. Even the one biological relationship that could hardly be questioned, his relationship to his mother, does not take precedence over the relationships that exist among those who are his disciples. "Here," he says, pointing to them, "are my mother and my brothers!"
Imagine what it would be like to engage Jesus in the debate we have been having in our society in recent years about family values. Most of that debate has been concerned about what to do to preserve and protect families, to help keep them intact, to promote and nurture and enhance them so that they will survive and prosper. The family values debate, for the most part, has assumed that we know what it is to be family. The task is to figure out how to keep it that way. But the question Jesus poses turns this way of looking at things inside out. Maybe we should not assume that we know what it is to be family in the first place. Maybe whatever it means to be family is not simply or primarily a matter of biological connections. Maybe the basis for family is something else.
Of course there was no family values debate, as we know it, going on in Jesus' day. But there was a very strong sense of family. And there were lots of laws about the governing of family life. Matthew has already told us, in the opening chapter of this Gospel, that when Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, he wanted to send her away. That was what a charitable reading of the law required. It certainly was not expected of him to marry her. He had no obligation to become father to a child with whom he had no biological connection. Thus, when an angel of the Lord tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife, this is really a command to violate or supersede the law. It is also the first indication in this Gospel that biology is not what determines our status in the eyes of God. This would have been a very difficult message, a very scandalous message, for Jesus' contemporaries to hear. Jesus appears to have challenged one of the most fundamental bases of identity for his own people. And in so doing, he must have appeared at least to some to be a violator of the commandments, a child who did not honor his parents, a rebellious son.
Is it any wonder that Jesus ended up being crucified? Not in Matthew's view. Jesus says and does all sorts of things that get him into trouble with the religious and political authorities. His teaching often counters and confounds the scribes and Pharisees. He breaks with traditional understandings and practice. He goes about his ministry with an unconventional air of freedom and authority. In the chapter that precedes our text, Matthew tells us that his detractors called him "a glutton and a drunkard, a friends of tax collectors and sinners!" [11:19] There are only two places in the whole of the Old Testament that speak of a glutton and a drunkard. One is in Proverbs 23 and the other is in our Old Testament text from Deuteronomy. In both of these, the glutton and drunkard is one who does not listen to or obey his parents. In Deuteronomy he is one who has been stubborn and rebellious, and deserves to die. I think Matthew is telling us that, from the viewpoint of certain religious authorities, Jesus looked like a rebellious son. His attitude about family was another of several reasons why they were more than willing for him to be crucified. When Jesus pointed to his disciples and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers," his detractors did not see this as the gesture of friendship and inclusiveness and solidarity that is was. They saw it as an affront to his relatives, a defiance of the law, a rejection of their family values.
Our text this morning probably tells us very little about what Jesus' actual relationships with his relatives were like. Scholars wish we knew a whole lot more about that. There may have been some estrangements, or sibling rivalries, but we can say hardly anything without speculation. The more important point is what our text tells us about how Jesus' teaching and ministry require us to re-think our ideas of who belongs in the family of God. For Jesus places no pre-conditions on who may be counted in. You know how we tend to decide who belongs: biology, genealogy, nationality, ideology, theology. But Jesus says, "whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." [12:50]
Recently I came across a news item that tells a story that reads like a parable of what Jesus was trying to do. The story is about a Presbyterian minister in Scotland named Irene Gillespie and what she has done to save dogs who might otherwise be put to death. Gillespie lives in the Highlands in a place called Newtonmore. One day she took home a beautiful mongrel dog from the local pet store rescue center, not realizing that she would soon find herself with seven new little puppies as well. The question immediately arose, of course, of what to do with the puppies.
Her husband remembered what he had done when in a similar fix back in the 1960s: he gave them a name and registry papers "and put them up for sale as 'Clackmannanshire haggis-hounds'--and, in the traditional Scottish expression, they went 'like snaw off a dyke' (like snow off a dry-stone wall).
"So Gillespie decided the new puppies should not spend their lives labeled as mongrels but should be the first in a dynasty of a new breed--Newtonmore Haggishound. Not only that, the Gillespies decided that anybody should be able to register their pet dog as an examplar (sic) of this breed--provided they made a suitable donation to the church." So now there is a new breed, with registry papers and all, that Irene Gillespie is offering to anyone with a dog.
"Dog owners who wish to find out more can do so by making their way to the Web site www.newtonmore.com/haggishounds. There they will learn what their dog has to be to qualify as a Newtonmore Haggishound: First, it has to be a dog (though in the manse at Newtonmore they are thinking of extending honorary membership to cats); it has to be your pet; and, most important, it has to have some fur or at least one leg." Meanwhile, of the seven puppies that arrived unexpectedly at the Newtonmore manse, within eight weeks five of them had already been placed in new homes [RNS article printed in THE PRESBYTERIAN OUTLOOK as "Pastor invents breed to save mongrels," November 23, 1998, p. 6].
Among those who became Jesus' disciples were a number who lacked the proper pedigree. Some may have had questionable ancestry. Some were without the proper papers. Others lacked the proper breeding. Even among those whose genealogies were not in question there were those who were viewed as mongrels, social outcasts, tax collectors and all kinds of sinners. In effect, what Jesus did was to introduce a new breed, a new family, a new basis for belonging. This new family was not based on race or gender or any other biological condition. It had no boundaries drawn by geographical or social or political borders. The movement that he began with his disciples was not designed to preserve and protect the established patterns of privilege and status, or their accompanying patterns of friendship and affiliation and belonging. The genius of this new movement was to encompass any and all who shared Jesus' vision of the kin-dom of God. "Whoever," says Jesus--"whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
It may be worth noting that the English translation of this last verse has not been altered to make it more gender-inclusive. Those who do God's will are mothers and sisters as well as brothers. Another sermon could be devoted to the ways in which this proves to be true. [When some people become part of the Christian community by joining the church, they find the family they never had. Some find the family they wish they had had. Some find a family to replace the family they once had. Others, however, do not find much of a family at all.]
Let it be enough for now to say that we have here a profoundly alternative vision of what it means to belong to one another. Jesus' "whoever" excludes no one from the start. The crucial basis for our relationship to one another is not whether we share a common gene pool or a common background, not whether we live in the same neighborhood or go to the same church, not whether we share the same personality traits or subscribe to the same creed. What really makes for family--in Jesus' view what makes us related in the closest possible way--is our fidelity to the purposes of God. AMEN.