Problem relatives - Mark 3:20-35

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 17th October 2004.

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When I was at primary school some of my favourite stories which the teacher would tell to the class were those of Brer Rabbit set in the Deep South. In particular there was the story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar baby which some of you may remembr. In the story Wily Fox, who was always keen to get one up on his opponent played a trick on Brer Rabbit. He made a doll out of tar and stuck it on the side of the road. When Brer Rabbit saw the tar baby, he thought it was a person who had stopped to visit him. Brer Rabbit tried to strike up a conversation with him, which, of course, was very one sided. The tar baby's silence initially puzzled Brer Rabbit. But pretty soon, puzzlement turned to frustration and frustration turned into anger. In fact the anger erupted into physical violence with Brer rabbit hitting the tar baby and in the event he got stuck to it, much to the delight of Wily Fox.

And you know, for some people, difficult relatives can be just like that tar baby. You can find yourself stuck with someone you can't communicate with. You can't talk to them, but then again you can't walk away from them either. They are, after all, your relatives; a parent, a brother a sister, even a spouse and you are stuck with them- and they with you. If they were a neighbour then at least in theory you could move home. If it were a friend, you could exchange them. But as they say, you can choose your friends but you don't choose your relatives.

And it can be all sorts of things which cause friction ranging from the trivial to the substantial. A mother who continually moans, a father who will slurp his soup, a brother who constantly brags, a mother-in law who still wonders why on earth her daughter ever married you. Tar baby relationships- stuck together but falling apart.

As someone once said: 'Why does life have to get so relatively difficult?' You see, if we expect anyone to be sensitive to our needs, then it is members of our family isn't it? When we are hurting physically we want a member of our family to respond. When we are struggling emotionally we want a member of our family to understand. And it simply adds to the hurt the pain and bewilderment to the emotions when that doesn't happen.

Let me give you an example. In her book, 'Irregular People', Joyce Landorf tells of a woman in her thirties who had just learned she needed a mastectomy. She and her mother rarely communicated, so the daughter was more than a little apprehensive about telling her. So one day she summoned up enough courage to arrange to have lunch with her to tell her the news. 'Mother' she said, 'I have just found out that I need a mastectomy.' The mother remained silent. Puzzled, the daughter asked if she had heard what she had said. The mother nodded and calmly dismissed the subject by saying, 'You know, you sister has the best recipe for chicken enchiladas.' Just what do you do when those closest to you keep their distance? It is not easy is it? We either explode like Brer Rabbit or withdraw, hiding behind the Teflon coated defence mechanisms we have so carefully constructed over the years.

Well, it may come as a surprise to you to discover that Jesus had all this to deal with too with his family. In fact it may come as a surprise to you to discover that he had a family at all, but he did. In Mark 6:3, quoting his critics, we read 'Jesus is just the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon. And his sisters are here with us.' Quite a large family then. And as we shall see, tar baby relationships characterised them too, for they were far from perfect- even Jesus' mother Mary.

So how did Jesus deal with relative values? Well, as we have been seeing over the last few weeks, one verse from the Old Testament, from the prophet Isaiah, takes us to the very heart of Jesus dealings with people: ' A bruised reed he will not break, a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.' So this morning we are going to see how this works itself out in the matter of the family under three headings: problems with the family; dealing with the family and finally hope for the family.

First, problems with the family. Do you think that your relatives don't understand you? Well, they didn't understand Jesus either. Following on from the great put down I have just mentioned in Mark 6 where Jesus has just given a cracking sermon in the synagogue he was brought up in back in Nazareth, Jesus replied: 'Only in his home town, amongst his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.' Astonishing isn't it? You might have expected the people to be proud of him- 'Didn't he do well?' well. But not a bit of it. Rather, it is 'Who does he think he is?' This is the boy who put our windows in with his father. This is the lad whose bar mitzvah we attended, so who does he think he is coming into his home town with a bunch of followers, speaking about miracles and that he is the fulfilment of all Old Testament prophecy? Because that is what he has just done. And so their response is what the Australians call, 'Cutting down the tall poppy.' Whatever achievements have been made are belittled. Whatever praise is deserved is denied. One minute Jesus is a hero, the next minute he is a heretic. Luke in his Gospel goes into more detail about what happened next: 'They got up, drove him out of town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and on his way.' (Luke 4:29-30).

Remember this is where Jesus was raised and this is where his family lived. What we read is pretty ugly isn't it? Mob rule. What we don't read is even more surprising. We don't read that Jesus brothers stood up for him. They are nowhere to be seen, unless they too are part of the crowd. Is that too harsh a judgement? I am not so sure it is because of what we read in our main gospel passage this morning. There we see that Jesus family actually opposed him. Look at it again, 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 know of the three alternatives C.S. Lewis placed before people when considering the person of Jesus? He said he was a lunatic, liar or Lord- mad, bad or God. The religious leaders concluded he was bad- possessed by Beelzebub, the prince of demons' they said in 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 stark raving mad. Now that must have hurt. Maybe we can understand Jesus siblings taking this view. After all, it is embarrassing to say the least, having a brother making Messianic claims. That is likely to give the family a bad name. Good job Dad isn't around to see what his eldest has turned into. But, 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 properly be 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. Therefore, maybe her protective maternal instincts got the better of her. Whatever, 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 who would know better, who had had a proper education. The shame of it all- her son in a head on collision with these people. 'Can't he stay out trouble for just two minutes?'

But this wasn't the only time Jesus family failed to understand him and ended up opposing him. We read of another incident in John 7:3, 'So Jesus' brothers said to him, "You should leave here and go to Judea so your followers there can see the miracles you do. Anyone who wants to be well known does not hide as he does. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world." And then John adds in parenthesis, 'Even Jesus own brothers did not believe in him.' As you listen to those words does not sarcasm and ridicule drip from them? Big brother wants to be big does he? Well, this is not the way to go about it tucked away in Hicksville. No, if Jesus is performing miracles let him make a show of it, go to the big city, the place where it counts- 'show yourself to the world.' And so they echo the temptation of the devil to Jesus in the wilderness. Do you remember? 'If you are the Son of God go to Jerusalem and perform a stunt by throwing yourself off the pinnacle of the temple, people will believe you then.'

There is no doubt; opposition from your nearest and dearest is one of the hardest tests you can ever be asked to bare. I remember returning home after my first term at University as a Christian for my Mum to round on me saying, 'If ever you become a Vicar I will never speak to you again.' We might think of Elsa Lynch, now back in Australia, who when she became a Christian from a Greek Orthodox background was more or less placed under house arrest for months. It is not easy being dismissed as a religious crank or in the case of some of our Jewish friends who become Christians, having the family hold a funeral service for you because as far as they are concerned you are as good as dead. And just maybe you are undergoing something like that yourself. Your wife doesn't understand about this new found faith of yours, or perhaps your husband. It could well be that your children are being teased by friends and family because they are following Christ. Well, it is some comfort to know that we worship someone who knows exactly what it feels like- he's been there too.

So what is to be done about it? This brings us to our second heading- dealing with the family.

I think it's important to note what Jesus did not do. He didn't try to control his family. There is no indication that when his brothers didn't share his convictions he tried to force them. Neither did he allow his family to control him. Sometimes of course we try to please others in the hope that we can control their response to us and so end up being controlled by them. But it never works. If your father is all demanding, being the best daughter in the world will not lessen those demands. If your mother doesn't like your career, a dozen job changes will not make the slightest difference. If you think that you can control people's behaviour towards you then you are simply placing yourself in bondage to their opinions. It is a game with unfair rules and fatal finishes. Jesus didn't even attempt to play that game and neither should we.

When his family turned up to try and take him away, he just kept on teaching. When he was a twelve years old and became separated from his family and Mary and Joseph found him in the temple, he respectfully reminded them that he was about his heavenly Father's business, that was his priority, and following this we read in Luke 2:51 'Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to themand Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and men.' In other words, Jesus simply continued to be himself, living out his life under the loving rule of his heavenly Father. In fact what he was doing was to have a radically different perception of what his family was. Look again at Mark 3: 34 'Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'

Here then is an altogether new family circle-quite literally. If his own family didn't share his convictions, then at least he had another family who did. Today we would call it the church. If Jesus' own family didn't give him the approval and blessing he needed, then there was at least one who did- God his Father. He may or may not have heard the voice of approval from Joseph in the carpenter's workshop, 'Well done Jesus'- but he certainly heard that voice of approval from heaven. At his baptism the heaven's opened and God said, 'This is my beloved Son in him I am well pleased.'

And we could do well to learn from that.

First of all, we need to make a distinction between having goals and having desires. We may rightly desire that our family understands us and if they are not yet Christians become Christians themselves. But that is all it can be- a desire. We have no control over the outcome. But we do have control over our goals. So we can have it as our goal to pray for them, to take the opportunity to speak to them when it arises, to live in a godly way by God's grace so that they are intrigued to find out more. In short the goal is to get on with the business of being a Christian. In that way we are following the example of Jesus. Jesus had his mission to accomplish -to teach, to heal and then to tread the lonely pathway to the cross and he was not to allow anything distract him from that, including his own family. As we saw in that reading from Luke, he was obedient to his parents and was no doubt the best child that ever lived- he was after all perfect. And that is very much in line with what the rest of the NT teaches. A Christian child are to obey their parents whether they are Christian or not in everything says, Paul in Ephesians 5 except at the point of sin or denying God. I tell you having Christian children of any age showing respect to parents is bound to make them take notice and think Christianity can't be all that bad ! Wives, says Peter, are to behave in such a way towards their non-Christian husbands that without saying a word, they might be won over. But if we confuse goals with our desires that is when we end up being frustrated. Yes, I desire for my parents to become Christians, but I cannot make that my goal, if I were to do so then I will end up feeling very frustrated even to the point of being resentful if they don't seem to be responding. But if I make it my goal to pray, to show kindness and patience-then I can be content with that and leave the rest with God.

But secondly, with Jesus we must get our priorities right. Sure it is good to receive approval from our parents or spouse. It is lovely to get some sympathy and understanding from our nearest and dearest. But if we are Christians we do have something others don't have which is meant to be a tremendous resource to offset the times when these things don't come our way- we have God and his family. Isn't it wonderful to have recourse to speak to a Father who really does understand us and cares for us, such that Jesus says, 'Even the hairs on our head are numbered by him'? Isn't it wonderful to have brothers and sisters in Christ you can go to in a crisis knowing they are not going to judge you as a failure, because they know we are all failures saved by grace? Jesus got it absolutely right in not being phased, dropping everything to rush out and appease his family, when he said, 'No, here is my family-those who do the will of God.' The fellowship denied him by his brothers and sisters was more than made up for by his new brothers and sisters- Peter, James, John, Martha, Mary. And we have the same here at St John's. And as we draw on what God provides, then whilst God makes no promises that everything will turn out alright with our families, there is at least a possibility that it will. And so our final heading -hope for the family.

What happened to Jesus family? Well from what we have seen so far we might think-not much. But we would be wrong. In Acts 1:12 we read that after the ascension of Jesus 'The disciples went back to Jerusalem from the Mount of OlivesThey all continued praying together with some women (and then listen to this), including Mary the mother of Jesus and Jesus brothers.' Now that is some change. Those who mocked him now worship him. Those who pitied him now pray to him. Jesus had not bullied them. Jesus had not given up on them. Jesus by his life and ministry had eventually persuaded them. So we are not to lose heart. God still changed families and the amazing thing is- he uses people like you and me to do it.

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