By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
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 Lord created families’ but families, and how we think of them, are not always as straightforward as we might like or imagine. So when we hear or use talk of ‘family values’ it is occasionally worth asking what is meant by that. Even those who speak of them on a regular basis are often quite challenged to define what it is that is meant – you’re just supposed to know ‘in your heart’ even if you can’t define it.
One of the last things I did in my previous job, before I came here, was to draft a discussion document for the Conference of European Churches on ‘Family Policy’. It was intended to help that organisation of Protestant and Orthodox churches develop their thoughts on what governments nationally and at a European level might be expected by the churches to do to support families and family life. It was written in the context of competing ideas of what family life should look like – and in particular in the context of trying to find some common ground between the largely liberal west and north of Europe, and the predominantly conservative and traditional east and south.
Well, you might say, the common ground is in the bible – obviously. But the bible may not be the best place to look for models of familial harmony. We read this morning of the foundational family of Genesis – and all was not going well; it all starts badly, with disobedience, denial, and distrust. It starts with refusals to accept responsibility, and a quick willingness to blame the other. The history of the human family begins with ‘it wisnae me!’
And things do not improve. The first brothers are mutually suspicious and jealous and competitive, until one kills the other – fratricide is one of humanity’s first instincts. Disputes between brothers continue to be a theme with Jacob tricking Esau, and Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. And the treatment of women hardly bears thinking about – with Abraham prostituting his wife to save his own skin, and a father sending his daughter out to a rapacious mob to save the honour of his male guests.
In the world much of the bible describes and indeed presumes women, whether wives or daughters, are possessions – sometimes valuable possessions, but possessions nonetheless. They can be ornaments or servants, managers or vassals, but they have no rights of their own, no status of their own. And, among some who today talk of family values, the attitude to women is not hugely different.
And then we come to Jesus – and he challenges many of the presumptions of his time and of his faith. He forbids the summary dismissal that customarily allowed a man to divorce his wife and send her in to penury and destitution on a whim or in a moment. He tempers the moralistic zeal of those who bring him a woman caught in adultery – a married woman, because adultery was about ownership of the wife by her husband, and the trespassing on property by another. He speaks to those whose domestic arrangements have made them people who should be ignored and shunned by polite society. And often those who have claimed to follow him since him have been the keenest to continue the customs and habits he so deliberately challenged and contravened.
But then we come to our passage for today where, in the first part we have Jesus’ family going out to restrain him – worried that the crowd might be right, that he had lost his mind. And then we have Jesus asking who are his mother and brothers and sisters. Notice that earlier we had the chosen disciples named and listed; but Jesus’ actual family have no names given in the telling of the tale. So Jesus reconfigures the family – my mother and my brothers are those who agree with me, who follow me, who do what I command. Is that what we mean by family values? It probably isn’t – but it’s worth maybe exploring this story a little further, because there may be something in here that helps us.
The first thing is that, as always, Jesus is saying things for effect – so you have to pay attention to who is listening, and think about what they were meant to hear. So, in this case, the crowd includes scribes who have come down from Jerusalem. The scribes are the men of the law, the ones who know what it says where, who know what is allowed and what is not, the ones who carry the tradition. They will tell you what a family is or is not – and they will be especially keen to tell you about the family of faith, the family of Israel, keen to tell you where the boundaries of that family are.
And Jesus is saying to anyone who has ears to hear that the family is not to be restricted to the traditional delineation. Jesus is turning to the scribes, the authorities, the ones with the answers, and asking them: ‘who is my family?’ It’s a challenge to them – and to their authority. People say, ‘your mother and brothers and sisters are outside.’ And Jesus replies not to those who have given him this piece of information; he asks the scribes: ‘OK, you tell me – who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?’ But it’s a rhetorical question – he knows their answer and he doesn’t want to hear it.
He indicates those sitting around – ‘here they are,’ he says, ‘here are my family; the ones who do God’s will.’ It’s not a matter of birth, he is saying; you’re not born into an exclusive society that God loves – God’s family can be made up of, is made up of, anyone who chooses to follow. And this is the real blasphemy – not the forgiveness of sins, but the spreading of God’s regard and God’s love beyond the boundaries of what was presumed to be the family of God.
When I wrote that piece over seven years ago, I suggested that you could approach families and family policy in one of two ways. You could either talk about who families were, or about what they did – or, if you want the actual words I used, the ontological and the functional! If you concentrate on who families are, you concentrate on things like ‘is there a father and a mother?’, ‘are they married?’, ‘were they married in church?’
And these are things that concentrated the mind of the east and the south. The family, they said, was not supported by policies that gave housing to unmarried mothers, or that awarded benefits with no regard to the marital status of the parents. The family was not supported by measures that seemed to encourage people not to care for their elderly in their own homes. And the family was certainly not supported by any suggestion that two people of the same gender could be a couple, or could be parents, or could raise a family. And actually, I think that Jesus is saying in the passage we read today that a family is recognised not by who it is, or what its lineage is, but by what it does.
So the next question is: ‘what should a family do, how will we recognise it?’ There was a tendency, even a custom, in biblical times for families to be the boundaries of life. The lines were drawn not only, as with the scribes, around the family of faith, but around families more generally. Life was predicated on a pattern in which you knew your place – and you stuck to it. Jobs and land were passed down from generation to generation within the family; the way life was lived, the understanding of what life was about, was unchanging, fixed – and dependable.
For many that is still true today. Not only are wealth and poverty inherited, but traditions, whether of trade or faith or culture, are expected to be passed on, preserved, maintained – and that is why even today there are sometimes big family rows if a marriage is proposed that is seen to weaken the tradition, or threaten it. And so Jesus speaks of situations where family life is viewed as an imposition or a straitjacket – and the tale of the prodigal son is perhaps the best known.
But Jesus uses the language of the family because he knows that as a model for human society, as a model for care, compassion and coherence, it has never been surpassed. He uses it because, as we say in our marriage services, there is in the understanding of the family a way of living for others that is of God. But he also challenges our interpretations of the family, because there were times – there have always been times – when families become far removed from the ideal we have in our heads when we speak of ‘family values’.
There are times when families become not just an imposition but an oppression; there are times when domestic abuse makes family life a source of terror; there are times when the limitations or even the ambitions of parents make family life an unbearable pressure for their children; there are times when the family becomes a burden that cannot be carried.
So it’s important that families are understood by what they do – that they are supported for the care they provide and the life of self-giving they encourage. But they can never be absolutised, made into the instruments of social control that over the centuries they have often been reduced to. And it’s important that the church finds ways both to support the family and also, when necessary, to challenge it.
The church has become viewed from the outside as the last bastion of traditional roles, a limited understanding of human nature, and the place where freedom is the last thing you can expect. It is not so, but we have allowed ourselves to be painted in those colours by some within and many without. And Jesus did not want that to happen.
The Lord created families, but overbearing, over-confident humanity has often subverted them and turned them into ways of keeping people down. Our prayer must be that as the family of the church, the family of God, and indeed the various families of which we are a part, we can live the value of families as passionate freedom, loving encouragement, and enabling solidarity – and that we can help create these same things in the life of the world around.