Family is a loaded word, pregnant with meaning, ideas, images, hopes and regrets. One of my favorite pictures of family comes from the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Who has seen it? It is a hilarious, romantic comedy from 2002 with some fantastic characters. Ian Miller is a non-Greek man who wants to date and eventually marry Toula. In one of the scenes, Ian asks her what Christmas is like in her family and she responds that her mom makes roast lamb and then
“my dad and uncles, they fight over who gets to eat the lamb brain. And then my aunt Voula forks the eyeball and chases me around with it, try to get me to eat it, ’cause it’s gonna make me smart. So, you have two cousins, I have 27 first cousins. Just 27 first cousins alone! And my whole family is big and loud. And everybody is in each other’s lives and business. All the time! Like, you never just have a minute alone, just to think, ‘Cause we’re always together, just eating, eating, eating! The only other people we know are Greeks, ’cause Greeks marry Greeks to breed more Greeks, to be loud breeding Greek eaters…My family is big and loud but they’re my family. We fight and we laugh and yes, we roast lamb on a spit in the front yard. And wherever I go, whatever I do they will always be there.”
That is one heck of a picture of family isn’t it? So what is your picture of family? How would you describe your family to someone who asked? I would describe my family as a group of individuals who want to appear normal and successful but who are really pretty odd and broken. We hardly ever get together, and when we do we talk about the weather, the darn liberals who are messing up the country and Mexican food, since most of them live in South Texas (in that order). There is a lot of back stabbing and people are constantly trying to figure out if they are in the family’s good graces or bad favor this year. As I have grown up and reflected on all this it makes perfect sense to me why my parents moved away from their families and never really tried to be part of family.
Maybe your family is like Toula’s – laughing and fighting, but always there, or maybe it is like mine – dysfunctional and broken, or maybe you are in between. The good news is that you can have a new family, a biblical family. But before we get to that let’s talk about what it means to be a family in the biblical sense. In the Old Testament a family was the smallest and most basic unit of inclusion, security and spiritual continuity in the nation of Israel.
It was in the family that people found relationships, which gave them a sense of belonging. That is why the Scriptures devote a lot of paper to various genealogies. These aren’t just boring lists of names, this is the way people found a sense of belonging or identity. Coming from the western world where people stand on their own accomplishments, names and families don’t mean a lot to most middle class people, but move up the social ladder and family names become really important – names like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Rothschild and Carnegie give their heirs a certain sense of belonging and history.
When we read a biblical passage with family names listed, we need to remember that every individual in the biblical world saw himself as an extension of his family. He wasn’t a loner, or a self-made person, he belonged to the family, the family belonged to the clan, the clan belonged to the tribe, the tribe belonged to nation and the nation belonged to God. That is why it was such a huge punishment to be cast out of the family. For then one was on his own, and separated from God. That is why, when God declared that Cain would “be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Gen 4:12), Cain responded saying “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land and I will be hidden from your presence, I will be a restless wanderer on the earth and whoever finds me will kill me” (Gen 4:13-14).
That is why Abram’s call from God to leave family, land and household in order to go to a place God would show was a call to radical obedience and complete trust in the Lord. He was giving up a sense of belonging and security. He was being called to wander in the desert, alone, separated from the security of those who would watch his back. Families give us a sense of inclusion, but they also provide safety and security along with a line of authority. Inside a family, the Father, or patriarch is the one who exercises authority. That is why the 5th commandment declares that all members of the family are to “Honor your Father and Mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exo. 20:12) or as Paul says “Honor your father and mother” — which is the first commandment with a promise — that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth” (Eph 6:2-3).
Fathers were called to protect their households but were also responsible for not disciplining their sinning children. The story of Eli and his sinning sons in 1 Samuel 2:27ff is a chilling account of a Father’s authority failing to be exercised. Finally, the family was the guardian of spiritual continuity in the nation. The family was called to catechize their children and disciple them. (Deut. 6:7) Impress them [the commandments of God] on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Many of the major feasts or liturgies had parts where the children were to ask the Father questions so that the Father could instruct his household in the faith. For example, regarding the Passover and the consecration of the firstborn, (Ex. 12:26, 13:14-15) “In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, “it is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians”…‘With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…this is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.”
Because of these three factors: sense of inclusion, the security a family provided and the spiritual continuity that families were called to practice the head of the family was highly respected and to be obeyed. And with that obedience and respect came a reverence for the family and a calling by every member to watch out for the welfare of the family and the family name. Anything that might damage the family foundation – its economic, judicial, or spiritual future – needed to be nipped in the bud quickly. Any member who threatened the security of the family was problematic and needed to be reined in quickly, even up to and including the Laws for killing unruly members of a family who refused to submit to the authority of the household or stop committing idolatry: (Ex. 21:15, 17) “Anyone who attacks his father or his mother must be put to death… “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death. (Lev. 24:16) anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death.
And that is where we find ourselves in our passage. Jesus has been teaching the crowd. He has healed a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath and also a blind and mute. In response, the Pharisees start charging him with being demon possessed. “He is infected by Beelzebub,” they say. “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons” (Matt 12:24).
With this charge, the family’s future, its welfare and any spiritual currency they might have has been put in great danger. And so as Mark records the story, we find out that people are taking over every area of Jesus’ home and life sot that they aren’t even able to eat. (Mark 3:21) When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
Jesus is crazy; the patriarch of the family has lost it, or so it seems. Remember, it is widely believed Joseph is dead by this time in the gospels and Jesus was the firstborn son of Mary, so he is the household patriarch, but Mary and the younger half-brothers of Jesus can’t let the family future be torn apart, so they head over to get him, to talk some sense into him, or maybe even to quietly commit him to the back room of the house never to be seen again. The family is doing what it thinks is right, protecting itself, so that inclusion, security and the faith can continue.
What is fascinating about this little passage is the way that Jesus turns every one of these aspects of family life upside down by replacing genetics with spiritual birth & obedience to the Father. Jesus asks a profound question, “Who is included in my family? Who is my real family?” In order to answer that, let me ask a corollary question, “Who is outside of Jesus’ family in this story?”
We naturally assume that biology makes a family. Blood runs thicker than water goes an old phrase from the south. But that isn’t true in the gospel story. Jesus’ flesh and blood, mother and brothers are the ones outside his home while his disciples and those crowding into this house are inside his home. Those outside his house want to speak to him, those inside his home want to listen to him. It is a fascinating detail to the story about who is in the family and who isn’t when we note that Jesus doesn’t even go to the door, or invite his family into the home. There is no hospitality shown to his flesh and blood relatives and that is pictorially graphic.
Does that mean Jesus is negating the command to Honor his father and mother? Absolutely not, for in the gospel of John we find that Jesus has a great concern for his mother, as he hangs upon the cross. He speaks to Mary saying, (John 19:26b) “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to John, (John 19:27b) “Here is your mother.” Jesus loved and respected his parents, but he seizes upon a teachable moment to declare something new about God’s family.
Those who are truly members of God’s household and to whom Jesus has the greatest obligation are those who do the will of my Father in heaven (Matt 12:50). So what is the will of God? John 6:40 declares, “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 him up at the last day.” Matt. 7:21-23 says it this way, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
The will of God is the redemption of all who have faith in the Son of God. The will of God is about a relationship where people are included into the one and only Christ, (Gal. 1:4) who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. The will of God isn’t that we do a lot of stuff; it is that we believe in the one who has perfect stuff. It isn’t that we stay pure, keep holy, give so much money, abstain from saying bad things or doing bad things (though all of those are good things), but the will of God is that we trust in the one who alone atoned for all our failures because he was the perfect spotless lamb who did each of these things and innumerably more perfectly on our behalf. As John the Baptist said, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
This is where Jesus turns everything on it head. Our highest loyalty isn’t to genetic kin, but to our heavenly Father. Man or woman makes no difference. Gender is irrelevant. Jesus’ mother and brothers had come to get him, but when Jesus answers the question, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” (Matt 12:48) he adds in a small little word, and sisters, too. All makes and models, if you’ll pardon the euphemism, are included into the family of God. In fact, Paul fleshes that out by saying (Rom. 1:16, 10:12) I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile…For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile — the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him. (Col. 3:11) Here [in Christ] there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Jesus completely changed who was included in the family of God when he answered the question, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matt 12:48). And with that answer he also changed where our security is to be found as believers, how the faith is to be propagated – in short, “Who is responsible for watching over the welfare of the family?” To which again, the answer is every believer is called to watch out for the welfare of every other believer, both physically and spiritually.
The will of God for every believer begins in faith, but the scriptures go on to declare that the will of God also encompasses many other good works. 1 Peter speaks three times about doing good as part of God’s will, here is one of those: (1Pet. 2:15) For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. The apostle John after writing at length about obedience to the commandments of God, namely to love one another says, (1John 2:17) The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. From this we can conclude that loving others is part of the will of God. The author of Hebrews speaks about persevering in the faith even under hardship as part of the will of God. (Heb. 10:36) You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.
The book of Acts records how the members of the House of Faith cared for one another, prayed for one another and sold their possessions to give to the poor within their new family (Acts 2:42-46). Romans calls us to (Rom. 12:10, 13) Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves…Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. In fact that responsibility to share is reiterated in almost every one of Paul’s letters with the author to the Hebrews saying it this way, (Heb. 13:16) And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Our familial obligations inside the family of God are equally as broad and encompassing as they were to the ancient Hebrew seeking to ensure the stability and viability of his family. WE have many who we are called to watch over and care for. In fact, we are called to (1Pet. 3:8) Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. These are the works we are called to as part of the faith God desires in his people. For this makes the family fo God a smoothly oiled machine.
So how can we do it? How can we experience the life changing call to move from one family to a greater spiritual family? By ourselves we can’t. We are powerless to do all that. We can’t conjure up faith. We can’t try harder. That will just lead to great frustration and many failures. The secret to becoming a member of the family of God with new allegiances, new responsibilities and new desires begins in Jesus pointing to his disciples. I really don’t like the way verse 49 is translated. The NIV uses the words, pointing to his disciples but a better translation would be stretching out his hand. When Jesus stretches out his hand, people respond, healing occurs. (Mark 1:41-42) Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched [a leper who wanted to be healed]. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.
Is Jesus stretching out his hand to you today, inviting you to a greater, broader more encompassing vision of life in the family? Behold, I stand at the door and knock. Is he calling you to see more than just your flesh and blood as part of your responsibility to the family? Behold, I stand at the door and knock. Is your life bound to change in unexpected ways as you enter his big fat Christian family? Sure, and Jesus is big enough to give you the change of heart to go with it. He is the only one who can invite you into the family of God. He is the only one who can secure you in the faith and teach you the truth by his Holy Spirit. Look around the room. Jesus is stretching out his hand to us today in an invitation saying,
Here are my mother and my brothers, For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother. (Matt 12:49-50) Will you open the door and let him come into your heart?
- What does it mean to be family?
- Inclusion, authority/security, spiritual continuity (Gen 4:12-14)
- Obedience to head of the Family (Exo 20:12, Eph 6:2-3, 1Sam 2:27ff)
- Watch out for welfare of the family
- (Deut 6:7, Exo 12:26, 13:14-15, 21:15-17, Lev 24:16, Matt 12:24, Mark 3:21, Jn 9:26-27)
- Christ turns this whole concept on its head by replacing genetics with faith
- Those outside the family don’t listen & respond to him
- Those inside the family do the will of God (Mt 12:50)
- What is the will of God?
- Obedience to head of the Family – Faith (Jn 6:40, Mt 7:21-23, Gal 1:4)
- Who’s included: All, gender doesn’t matter (Mt 12:48, Rom 1:16, 10:12, Col 3:11)
- Watch out for welfare of the family – works
- (1Pt 2:15, 3:8, 1Jn 2:17, Heb 10:36, 13:16, Act 2:42-46, Rom 12:10, 13)
- How do we do it? Jesus stretches out his hand to us (Mk 1:41-42, Mt 12:49-50)