Who Is My Family?

Mark 3:19b-22, 31-35; Corinthians 7:1-11, 32-38

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, 6/7/15

 

 

Jesus asks the rhetorical question, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Many of us can relate. How many of us, particularly in our teen-age years, looked at our parents or siblings and asked, "Who are these people? They cannot possibly be any relation to me!" Or we look at our child and say, "Where did he come from?"

 

On this Sunday morning, the lectionary text is the one from Mark where Jesus asks that question, and then gives a very clear answer. I added the Corinthian text to it. This seems a good opportunity to take a look again at Jesus' view of the family (and Paul's for that matter) given that we are safely past Mother's Day and a few weeks from Father's Day, and with the pending Supreme Court ruling on Marriage Equality. But this is also more personal for many. Though the church often seems to hold up the traditional family and the roles of "mother" and "father" as ideals, for many people that is not their experience. Their family of origin has been, and is, anything but supportive. Neither have their mother or father been worthy of that title. Or maybe they themselves don't want to be, or are unable to be a "mother" or "father." Mother's and Father's days, especially when hyped by the church, are particularly painful for many. So who, then, is their true family?

 

The opposition to Marriage Equality is now at a fever pitch and they are pulling out all the old arguments. You are familiar with them: the mom, pop, and kids arrangement. They purport that the so-called "traditional" model is commanded in the Bible, ordained by God, and blessed by Jesus. I have had many people use that argument on me.

 

The problem is that I actually read my Bible! Jesus (and Paul) had some big problems with the "traditional family" of the first century. It cannot be denied that Jesus, in his adult life, had anything but a "traditional family!" The early church, as reflected in the passage from 1 Corinthians read this morning, promoted anything but the traditional family. The truth is that the Jesus Tradition is unrelenting in its criticism of "the family." It is suspicious as well, but somewhat less critical, of marriage.

 

As I said, the Jesus Tradition is, quite frankly, against the structure and values of the first century family. That is not to say that it is against the 21st century family, except to the extent that it perpetuates the problems Jesus had with the first century family structure and values. We will look at that in a minute.

 

I want to be clear that I am not against the family or marriage. I've had two sons and have been married for nearly 39 years. And if you are not against marriage after 39 years of it, that is saying something! However, as a white, economically well-off, married, heterosexual male, I particularly need to listen carefully to Jesus' critique of the "traditional" family.

 

There are three passages in Mark that deal with the family. These are duplicated with some variation in Matthew and Luke. There are a couple additional passages common to Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. The gospel of John completely ignores the family, except for a brief, very interesting scene from the cross where Jesus addresses his mother.

 

You heard the text from Mark 3. In Mark 10, we have Peter talking about leaving everything to follow Jesus. Truly they have. Mentioned in the call of some of the disciples is that they left their father, on the spot, to follow Jesus. This would have been a terrible shock to first century hearers. You just didn't do that! Jesus' response is that none who have left their family of origin, and their possessions (fields), will not receive a hundred fold, mothers (not fathers), brothers, and sisters.

 

What is going on here? The Jesus Movement sets up a clear opposition to the claims of the family! This opposition appears first as the disciples leaving home (even some women, for God's sake!) to follow Jesus. It then becomes the theme of explicit teaching when Jesus not only renounces the claims of his own family of origin but points to the establishment of a new family constituted not by those who have a familial claim, but by all who identify themselves with the coming of the divine reign.

 

A break with this powerful social institution of family is called for on the part of Jesus and his followers. It is not that there is to be no family (families are clearly needed and valuable) rather, family is not those who have a claim on one by heredity and social structure, but rather, those who embrace the new reality of justice, generosity, and joy. Those who are family are those who embrace what God is doing. Jesus is brother, along with others, God is father.

 

But why? How did the family institution prevent one from following Jesus and embracing the new age? It is telling that in the first encounter with family contained in Mark 3, that the "scribes from Jerusalem" are also present. The scribes and Jesus' family both think he is "crazy" because he stands outside the only accepted order and meaning of the day - the family.

 

As Biblical Scholar and theologian, Ted Jennings puts it, "The stability of familial institutions is directly linked to the stability of religious and social institutions. Indeed we may say that the family is the base, and religion the ideology of the basic social structures of life: cultural, social, political, and economic. The family is the place where these values are inculcated, and religion is the manner of validating and sanctioning them. Jesus' enactment of a new social order of open friendship, of solidarity and generosity, shatters the social world that both family and religion serve to protect. From the standpoint of both, Jesus is impious; Jesus is 'crazy.'" Doesn't that sound like the defenders of so-called traditional marriage today! The church, then and now, is expected to defend the status quo. And when we don't, we too are sometimes labeled "crazy."

 

In family systems theory, this reality is very well known. If a member of a dysfunctional family tries to break out, the whole family bans together to rein them in. The family calls them crazy, or selfish, and will go to extreme lengths to "fix" them. That is, to bring them back in to play the role in the family they always have. That way the family doesn't have to recognize itself as dysfunctional and in need of change. Again, doesn't that sound like the opponents of same-sex marriage today! Look how desperately they are working to bring marriage back to what they are familiar, comfortable, and most of all, in control of.

 

Jesus is saying that the structure and institution of the first century family is dysfunctional for the new age. When 21st century families reflect inequality, and oppression, they too are dysfunctional for the age Jesus is bringing into existence.

 

Why is that? What is the social order that the first century family was basic to upholding? It was patriarchy; the family structure was the basis of male ownership and control. It was also the way wealth was maintained and concentrated in wealthy families, like those of the Sadducees. The power of the father was inordinate, women, children, and slaves were property.

 

The hold that the family, particularly fathers, had on all its members, both in the legal/social structure and psychologically, was immense. Matthew states that no one on earth is to be called "father;" only the Father in heaven. Jesus' new world entails tearing down the hierarchical relationships. To prohibit calling one "father" prohibits the recognition of the claims of paternity by anyone on earth. That is, the authority of any human being, including that most powerful and authoritative-father. Perhaps that is part of the reason Jesus' earthly father, Joseph, plays such a small role. And the role he does play is not the patriarch, but the servant who does the will of God. That is also why Jesus didn't really call God "Father," but "Abba," which would be more equivalent to our term "daddy," or in Spanish, "popita." It was the expression of endearment used by a young child.

 

Luke is particularly adamant in his opposition to the family structure. In his gospel, Jesus says, "Those who do not hate father and mother, sister and brother... cannot be my disciples." That seems awfully extreme, yet given what is at stake and the power of family in that day, perhaps an emotion that strong is necessary. Many teenagers go through a stage that seems much like "hate" toward parents and family. It is for the same reason - to gain the power and distance to break away. Multiply that many fold and you begin to see the enormous task Jesus had.

 

We are not talking here of enmity toward individuals, but rather toward the roles of father, mother with their special rights, expectations, and demands in the first century family. Individuals are invited to take their place in the new community not with any special claim, but with loyalty to the new reality. It is to be an egalitarian community where the gifts of all are recognized and shared.

 

This is consistent with what we see Jesus do, in relation to his mother, from the cross in the Gospel of John. Though Jesus' mother had other biological sons, it is not them, but rather another disciple, the one Jesus loved, presumably not a blood relative, of whom Jesus said, "Woman, here is your son." And to the disciple, "Here is your mother." "And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home."

 

The special claims of the family system that is enmeshed in upholding a hierarchical, unjust, unneighborly society is diametrically opposed to the claims of the new reign.

 

Lastly, we can very quickly see Paul's view from 1 Corinthians 7, read this morning. He, too, is not so gung ho on the idea of marriage and the family. Why? For very much the same reason as Jesus, though it appears less directly related to the abolition of patriarchy, but that one needs to be concerned with the things of God, of the new world, and marriage distracts one. Again, however, it is loyalty to God, not family, that is at issue. Notice also that the wife has equal claim on the husband as the husband does on the wife! To hear that would have blown the hair back on the heads of first century listeners! It appears that patriarchy was already abolished in Paul's idea of how the marriage relationship should be.

 

In general, he believes it is better not to marry but that marriage is permissible and in some situations advisable - not exactly an uncritical endorsement of marriage!

 

Notice two very important things. Paul assumes and respects sexuality. In this passage, that is the reason for being married. Equally, the partners are to please each other. This is to be an egalitarian marriage - as I said, extremely counter-cultural in Jesus' day. He seems to think that it is better not to be married, so that you can devote yourself fully to the new realm, which was thought to be imminent, but if your passions are aflame, thus getting in your way, by all means marry.

 

It is also clear that Paul's reason to get married is not in order to have children. It is to mutually satisfy ones sexual needs. Sexuality here is not related to procreation. That may surprise you, given what the tradition has done with sexuality and the role of women. However, there is only one place in the New Testament where marriage and the woman's role, is to reproduce! That is in 1Timothy 2.This is not one of Paul's letters. It reflects the dominant culture's discomfort with the radical New Testament community. It is trying to pull it back to reflect the surrounding inequitable, paternalistic society. Thus, it is savagely misogynous- women cannot speak, teach, have authority, and are blamed entirely for the fall. So having children redeems them! That is the only place such a sentiment is expressed in the New Testament. It runs counter to both Jesus and Paul. All passages in the Scripture do not hold equal authority. This one certainly should not.

 

The notion of the sinfulness of sex, and that sex even in marriage is only for procreation runs completely counter to Jesus' and Paul's understanding! Rather, it comes from Aquinas. It became the basis of Catholic social teaching. One was either to be celibate or have sex in marriage for the purpose of making babies.

 

This notion was never a part of Protestant teaching or understanding-except, perhaps until recently!

 

How often have you heard the argument that two people of the same gender should not be married because only male and female could follow the model of a reproductive union? For some that may be a legitimate argument, but not for Jesus and Paul.

 

It makes sense that Jesus was against the traditional family and family values of his day. The family was the protector of an unjust, unequal society where power was located in privileged male power groups of religion and government. The patriarchy was powerful and would do almost anything to preserve itself. It was also antithetical to the reign of heaven that Jesus was bringing and in which his disciples were participating.

 

You can make your own judgement about your marriage, or partnership, or family relationships. To what extend do they participate in the upholding of the old reign? Where do they support you in embracing Jesus and the world he intends?

 

I think the so-called "traditional family," family values, and what I see of the world view of many who are desperate to keep or return to it, does not embrace the world of justice, generosity, and love to which Jesus calls us. Those who uphold the so-called "traditional family" cannot legitimately use the New Testament in its defense. They cannot use Jesus as their whipping boy. It appears, however, that like the patriarchy in any age, they will do almost anything to preserve their way.

 

However, Jesus, too, would do what it took to bring the new age, including death on a cross! He would do what it took, including calling the church members to be mother and sister and brother for each other, particularly for those whose families have been unwilling or unable to love and nurture them as they should have.

 

When I think of Jane Rowse and April De Boer around whom the right-to-marry case in Michigan was brought and the three special-needs children they want to adopt together, I cannot help but think that is a kind of family that meets Jesus' criteria for family. When I think of the relationships of many people I know - same sex, hetero, and mixed, where there is mutual love, desire, and respect, they meet Jesus' definition of family. When I think of some of the relationships here where people treat each other like sister, brother, mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, according to Jesus, that meets the criteria for true family.

 

And I think I will trust Jesus on this one!