A family is continually becoming what becomes of it, writes Frederick Buechner. “It is every christening and every commencement, every falling in love, every fight, every departure and return… It’s the sound of the phone ringing in the middle of the night or the lying awake for hours waiting for the phone to ring.” (Whistling in the Dark) It’s the children laughing, brothers wrestling, parents offering advice, lovers whispering or crying, and the silence after a door is slammed shut. For anyone who’s had one fall apart, a family’s wings are gossamer, “a web so delicately spun that it takes almost nothing to set the whole thing shuddering or tear it to pieces. Yet the thread it’s woven of is as strong as anything on earth.” (ibid) The depth of our longing for connection has everything to do with the family that gave us our start, and we shape our current communities with the new, perhaps healthier systems we’ve been building since then.
If you are looking for snap-shots of an ideal family, of life-giving parent, child, and sibling relationships, the Bible may not be the best place to look. Consider Abraham almost sacrificing his son on a make-shift altar, or the crippling favoritism that Isaac later showers on one of his twins, or old Samuel and his shiftless sons, or the awful tangle between David and his children Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom, whose saga includes a rape and a murder within their intimate circle. And Mark reveals tension within Jesus’ own family(!) One translation says, “When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind.” (Mark 3:20, Common English Bible)
Yet much of the tradition is uncomfortable suggesting that Jesus had trouble getting along with his closest relatives. The King James Version totally removes Jesus’ family from this part of the story, saying instead: “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold of him, for they said, ‘He is beside himself.’” Other translations put the disparagement of Jesus in the mouths of anonymous “other people” instead of his kinfolk, and the authors of Matthew and Luke, written after the time of the gospel of Mark, omit entirely from their stories any hint that Jesus’ family thought he was disturbed.
The wider context of the story is a controversy over authority involving influential religious leaders and Jesus’ family, with both groups expressing trouble understanding who Jesus is and what his actions mean. The scribes who came down from Jerusalem conclude he is possessed by Satan, the tempter, while his family worries he has lost his sanity, and in this ancient setting, these two diagnoses are roughly equivalent to each other. (Matthew Skinner) It’s an old story, really, to label a challenge to the status quo “crazy talk,” and both allegations attempt to discredit the one here who is facilitating health. Jesus experiences in this exchange what a modern person discovers when he exposes a bully in the workplace, when an abused spouse begins to take care of herself, when a sober sibling navigates an alcoholic system, or when the son of slaves reveals the violence of low expectations.
The story digs a little deeper. “Then his mother and brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. The crowd sitting around Jesus said to him, ‘Your mother and your brother and sisters are outside, asking for you.’” And Jesus replies with a shocking query, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at the people near him, he answers his own question: It’s you. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother, he says.
This is good news for the folks inside the house that day, who identify with Jesus and his teaching, and it’s good news for Mark’s earliest readers, who often found themselves estranged from their biological families… Think of the disciples who left everyone behind…
But this is pretty hard to take for his relatives standing outside, and for anyone with high regard for conventional notions of honor and social stability. In a stunning and probably painful exchange with his relatives, Jesus redefines family altogether here. For him and his Way, family will no longer be determined by blood relations, kinship ties, or the rules of inheritance. Life-giving family is defined by something bigger, less parochial, more inclusive, characterized by mutual respect and called to the work of leveling generations of uneven playing fields.
You see our family is much bigger than we thought it was. Who’s in our gang after all? Prostitutes, thieves, widows, the childless, immigrants, angry brothers, the prodigal, the Ethiopian, the Samaritan, the Greek, the Jew, the wealthy benefactor, the never married, the three times married, gay, straight, and trans, Republican, Democrat, independents, even Yankees fans. And our call is to weave the streets of Baltimore and its various factions and fractured relationships into a living fabric that joins disparate, unlikely, even antagonistic strands together. Because according to Jesus, the courage and will to love is what makes a family, not blood.