What Did Jesus (and Paul) Say About The Family?

Luke 14:25-26, 33; 20:27-35; Mark 10:28-31; I Corinthians 7:1-11, 32-38

Rev. Doug Van Doren


There is a lot of talk these days about "marriage" and about "family values"; which seems to mean valuing the "traditional" family, even to the point of feeling the need to protect it. To protect it from what? I suppose from other models of family. This is at a high now on the national political scene, but more so in Michigan with an amendment on the ballot that would constitutionally define what is already clearly defined in law: that marriage is between one man and one woman.


The point of this sermon is not to speak specifically for gay marriage or against the amendment. Let me be clear, however, I am unequivocal in my opposition to the amendment for several reasons, including because it would likely disallow existing and future domestic partnership benefits but also because I am completely in favor of same-sex marriage.


This sermon is prompted by one of the arguments you hear so often against any familial arrangement other than the so-called traditional "pop, mom, and the kids" arrangement. That is that this "traditional" model is commanded in the Bible, ordained by God, blessed and reinforced by Jesus. On many occasions I have actually had people use that argument on me. The problem is that I read my Bible! But even if we don't use this argument, most of us assume it is true. In fact, one of the characteristics of Protestantism is that marriage and family are elevated to such a high and holy level that we are led to suppose that the Bible, especially Jesus and the New Testament, is unambiguous in its affirmation of "Holy Matrimony." Well, it is not!


You have already seen that from the texts read this morning. As well, it certainly cannot be denied that Jesus, in his adult life, had anything but a "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 (except for Luke, he'll have none of it). We will see why. Let us be clear, 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 ours, except to the extent to which ours perpetuates the problems Jesus had with the First century family structure and values.


I am indebted in this sermon to a number of fine scholars, particularly the writings of Dr. Ted Jennings of the Chicago Theological Seminary. I also want to say that I am not against the family or marriage. I have two sons and have been married for 28 years. And if you are not against marriage after 28 years, that is saying something! But, 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, and there are a couple of 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.


Let's look first at a passage I did not include for reading this morning, which is found in Mark 3:20. This is very early in the gospel. Jesus had just appointed the 12 apostles and he had been teaching a huge crowd of followers. He went home (clearly not a home shared by his biological family), but the crowd followed him, so that he couldn't even eat. The text says: "So when his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, 'He has gone out of his mind.'" The scribes, interestingly, are also mentioned here. They said that he had a demon. "Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, 'Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.' And he replied, 'Who are my mother and my brothers?' And looking at those who sat around him, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'"


The next time we see reference to Jesus' biological, or family of origin, is when he has returned to his hometown in Mark 6. He preaches in their synagogue, and they know that he is the one who used to be a carpenter there; they name his mother and brothers, and admit that his sisters are with them. And they take offense at him. Jesus "at home" is known as an ordinary member of an ordinary family. How can something so extraordinary come out of someone so familiar? His own family regards him as crazy; he has given them up for untouchables, lunatics, and assorted persons of ill repute. In the face of their resistance, he cannot do his deeds of power. (Remember in Luke, they try to kill him.)


Next 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 leaving their father on the spot to follow Jesus. Jesus' response is that none who have left their family of origin and their other possessions (fields), will not receive a hundred-fold, mothers, (not fathers), brothers, and sisters. Luke is even more extreme in his use of this material: "Whoever comes to me and does not 'hate' father and mother, wife and children (Luke is the only one that includes wife), brothers, and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple."


What is going on here? The Jesus movement sets up a clear opposition to the claims of family of origin. This opposition appears first as the leaving of home 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 by all who identify themselves with the coming of the divine reign.


The old family that "domesticates" life is represented in Jesus' encounter in his home town as making impossible participation in the coming divine reign. A break with this powerful institution is called for on the part of Jesus and his followers. It is not that there is no family rather; family is not those who have a claim on one by heredity and social structure, but those who embrace the new reality of justice, generosity, and joy. Blood ties are irrelevant. Those who are family are those who embrace what God is doing. Jesus is brother, along with others. God is father. Jesus is opposed to all structures that enforce the status quo (old values) and that thus oppose what God is bringing into being.


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 in Mark, where they come to get Jesus because they think he is crazy, the "scribes from Jerusalem" are also present. They both think he is crazy because he stands outside the only accepted order and meaning of the day. The only accepted order was represented on the one hand by the family of origin and on the other by religious authorities.


As 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'."