Who are my mother and brothers? - Mark 3:20-35
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
We are very much creatures of extremes and live in a society of extremes. Take for example, the different views which people hold about the family.
One extreme is to idolise the family- that is make an idol out of it. Here everything centres around the family, it takes priority over everything else so what we work for, live for and even pray for is -the family. Its well-being has to be preserved at all costs, so if any misfortune should befall the family- illness, financial difficulty- our whole world collapses.
The other extreme is to disparage the family. The classic example of this took place after the 1917 Russian Revolution where the family was considered to be bourgeois standing in the way of socialistic progress and so steps were taken to effectively dismantle the family and marriage itself. That experiment didn’t last long because it was soon discovered that with the unravelling of the family society itself soon began to unravel. And even in the West today, the family is under attack from different quarters.
But then we come to Jesus only to discover a very different approach to the family. Without doubt he valued the family with its attendant obligations and responsibilities to be a God-given treasure, so that he had a go at the religious authorities who tried to provide a loop hole for children taking care of their parent’s in their old age by withholding money from them by swearing an oath to God, he upheld the commandment to honour your father and mother, castigating the religious elite for substituting God’s command with a human tradition (Mark 7:1-13). But like most things in life, everything has its proper place and we are not to relegate or elevate something out of its rightful God-given place. And what we see Jesus doing in the passage we are looking at this morning is relativising the family, so that with his coming to establish his loving rule, things take on a different value in relation to him- and that includes the family.
So here is the question of Jesus in verse 33 that we are thinking about, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ That is, who are the members of my closest family? The answer he gives seems shocking, bordering on the fanatical- the kind of religious extremism which is so looked down on today.
But before we get to Jesus’ answer to his own question we need to note those who aren’t most closely related to him.
First, they do not include those who act with the best of intentions but against God’s will. Look at Mark 3: 20: ‘Then Jesus entered a house, and again, a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’
You may be aware of the three alternatives C.S. Lewis placed before people when considering the person of Jesus? He said he was either a lunatic, a liar or Lord- mad, bad or God. Well, we see in this episode that the religious leaders concluded he was bad- possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons’ v22. His own family, including his mother- for she is mentioned in v32 as part of the family delegation out to section Jesus- think he has gone mad. When it says they came ‘to take charge of him’, the verb is a very strong one, meaning to ‘powerfully take hold of him.’ This is the men in the white coats grabbing hold of someone who is clearly deranged and forcing them into a strait jacket. Can you imagine your own family doing that? Maybe we can understand Jesus siblings taking this view. After all, it is embarrassing to say the least, having a brother making Messianic claims- folk who think they are God do tend to be put away. What is more this kind of thing is likely to give the family a bad name. But, what of his mother Mary? She had seen the angel. She had known of the divine origins of her son. She’d had the visits of the shepherds and the Magi. Surely of all people, his own mother would understand and defend him? Sadly, it was not so. She is there too wanting to take Jesus away, to lock him up in the family home so he can be properly taken care of. Now we don’t really know what motivated Mary to act in this way. Perhaps she had simply given in to the drip, drip of attrition by other family members to do something about her son who was proving to be a bit of a social embarrassment and was a danger to himself and others with all these crowds he was attracting. After all the religious authorities were getting involved too and that is only a small step from the Romans getting interested and everyone knew where that could lead. And so maybe her protective maternal instincts got the better of her. Every mother here would understand that. No matter how old your son is, he is still your son. But whatever the motives, she arrives with her family in tow, obviously just in time as Jesus is in the midst of yet another controversy with the religious leaders. You can imagine them thinking, ‘Can’t he stay out trouble for just two minutes?’
And this takes us to the heart of their problem, and maybe yours, namely, replacing what God has revealed with our own ideas of what Jesus should or shouldn’t be doing. If you do that then you place yourself outside of Jesus own circle of friends and relatives. It is all part of what Jesus says later in Mark 8, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels." It’s not just about being ashamed of Jesus, but his ‘words’, his teaching, which will lead to Jesus being ashamed of us. And it happens today. Does it become embarrassing when street preachers (or any preacher for that matter) make the claim ‘Jesus is the way, the truth and the light-no one comes to the Father except by him’ and so we rush to rescue Jesus from such an unPC statement by saying he didn’t really mean it, that there are other ways to God? Or if Jesus states unambiguously, as he does in Mark 10, that marriage is between a man and a woman, for that is how God ordained things from the beginning, then the church, who claims to be the bride of Christ no less, rushes in to say, ‘Of course Jesus was a man of his time and things have moved on, we have a new sexual ethics for today. ‘So culture trumps Scripture and Jesus must be ‘beside himself’ on this issue- as some bishops are now saying. No, even wearing a purple shirt and mitre does not necessarily make you someone who is close to Jesus.
The failure, and so the cause, of being on the ‘outside’ as far as Jesus is concerned, in this case physically as well as spiritually (v31) is not understanding who Jesus is and all that that entails- not least in obeying his teaching which has the magisterial authority of God. Yes, Jesus was Mary’s Son and she was his beloved mother, but first and foremost he is the eternal Son of the Father and so the one ‘through whom and for whom everything was made’- and that comes first. That divine reality and relationship shapes and defines all other realities and relationships and we are never to get those the wrong way around.
Secondly, as paradoxical as it may seem, being a blood relative of Jesus does not make you a genuine relative. It is often said that ‘blood is thicker than water’, that is, family ties are the strongest and closest ties we can have. Not so according to Jesus. You could not get any closer from a human point of view to Jesus than his own mother, brothers and sisters, and yet- from a divine point of view- because of their failure to submit to him and His Father’s will they are as distant from him as the most out- and- out pagan.
So if family membership does not make you a follower of Christ then it is a forgone conclusion that denominational or even theological membership doesn’t. You know, there is such a thing as the nominal Christian, even the nominal evangelical Christian. This is the one who loves to make all the pious statements, who speaks much about mission and evangelism, but would be the last person in the world to do it themselves. This is the one who loves pride of place in being on all the committees, being looked up to as the elder statesman, who gives large cheques to the church treasurer and seems so impressive with his long, earnest prayers rendered at the prayer meeting-and yet… and yet for all of this, if the truth be known it is all but a pious mask worn to hide the spiritual barrenness of his own soul. Do you remember My Talkative in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? He could talk for hours about spiritual things, he could quote the Bible backwards; you could not have found a more impressive person. And Pilgrim was understandably taken in until someone put him right by pointing out that it was a sure rule that the one who likes to talk the most about spiritual experiences is the one who has least had them.
So what is Jesus’ answer to his question: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’? There it is in verses 34 and 35, ‘Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” These are not Mr and Mrs Talkatives, but Mr and Mrs Doers. And it is therefore no surprise that in the next chapter Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the sower, with the difference between those who hear the Gospel and those who heed the Gospel, 4:20, ‘Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop”
Now what is God’s will which makes us into Jesus relatives? We are actually told in John 6:40, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” At this stage this is not what his closest relatives were doing. Instead of them submitting to Jesus they were trying to get Jesus submit to them, which is the common failing of us all, in short we try to domesticate Jesus. But there was a group sitting in a circle around him on that day that was starting to grasp this truth as they attended Jesus words and so God’s will. They were his brothers, sisters and mother.
Do you realise what an astonishing things Jesus is saying?
For the Jew, next to Yahweh himself nothing could have been more prized than the family. That is why the story of the prodigal son was so scandalous, that a young man should treat his father in such a rotten way, effectively saying ‘Dad I wish you were dead.’ And yet here Jesus is saying that this loose company sitting on the floor is more treasured than his own human family. That does sound fanatical doesn’t it? Well, it would if it were a mere man saying these things- like a Jim Jones who led his church ‘The People’s Temple’ to commit mass suicide. But, as we have seen this is not a mere man, this is the Son of God whose authority is over the highest human authority- parenthood.
Now before we fall into the temptation of nodding our heads with a pious ‘Quite so’, perhaps those of us who are parents need to think on a bit more deeply what this might cost us in terms of our children.
A few years ago, Dr John Woodhouse, then Principal of Moore Theological College, Sidney, said this: ‘Here is a test. How many Christian parents would find themselves giving thanks to God if a son or a daughter came home with the news that they had decided to spend their lives serving as a missionary in Slovenia, or Uzbekistan, or some other place about which you know very little? Certainly, we would all want to make sure that the decision had been made carefully and not rashly. We would not be happy with such a decision being made at a moment of high emotion. And we would want our children to be mature enough to know what they were doing. But suppose all that were so. The decision is not rash. The son or daughter has come to this decision carefully and over time. They know what they are doing. But there it is. Off to the end of the world to preach the gospel. So much for dreams of this one adding to the family wealth! So much for the hope that life would be even better for them than it has been for you. They will never own much. Life will be full of many difficulties for them. And many more negative things could be said. Can you imagine yourself reacting to the news by lifting your heart to God in thanks and praise?’ That may well be a challenge Heather and I will have to face with our youngest son Philip’s desire to share the Gospel in Vietnam. But that is the test isn’t it? You know even before they were born, Heather and I prayed that our children would be first and foremost Christ’s and we are in that sense just foster parents. And so if we are truly members of Jesus’ family then if such is his will then we demonstrate that by rejoicing in such a calling.
But the really astonishing thing about what Jesus is saying is this: If you are a genuine follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, that is someone who from your heart has accepted him as your Ruler and Saviour, born again of the Holy Spirit, attentive to his Word and producing spiritual fruit as a result- then you are closer to Jesus and more precious to Jesus than his own flesh and blood. Do you not think for a moment that Jesus didn’t love and adore his Mother and didn’t delight in his brothers and sisters by birth? Of course he did and he did so perfectly. But here Jesus relativizes such family ties such that they are now subordinate to the ties he has come to establish for ever, namely, having millions and millions and millions of brothers and sisters and mothers with him into all eternity. Look: Mrs Smith who lives in Brandsholme who knows and loves the Lord Jesus is closer to Jesus heart than his own mother was when he was growing up in Nazareth. John Snoot who lives out in Kirkella who knows and loves the Lord Jesus is more precious to Jesus than his own brother Jude when they used to skim stones across the Sea of Galilee. The littlest baby girl in our crèche, who is a child of believing parent, is dearer to Jesus than one of his own sisters he used to babysit as a teenager. You cannot get any closer to Jesus than being by a Christian; you cannot be any more loved than you are right now by Jesus if you are part of his circle that does the will of God.
 ‘Hope for all the world?’ John Woodhouse , The Briefing 1 May, 2004
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