Let the Scriptures Speak
Jesus' Family Values
Whoever does the will of God is my
brother and sister and mother. (Gospel)
An unstudied reading of this Sunday's passage from Mark is bound to shock and puzzle. The main shock comes from Jesus' surprising response to his relatives when they come after him to seize him, apparently to bring him back to Nazareth from Capernaum, where his healing ministry has stirred up an extraordinary following among the people and a concerned scrutiny on the part of the authorities. Informed that his mother and brothers are outside asking for him, Jesus says, “Who are my mother and brothers?” And looking about at those seated in the circle he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Understandably, many readers are shocked by this apparent slighting of Mary and the “sisters and brothers.” It seems an affront to conventional family values.
That is puzzling enough. But then there is the question of the nine verses that come between Mark's note that the relatives set out to seize him and the scene in the house, namely the episode of Jesus responding to the accusation of the scribes from Jerusalem that he is possessed by Beelzebul (literally, “The Lord of the Flies”). Why does Mark frame the Beelzebul episode with the two parts of the “true family” episode?
As for the behavior of Jesus' extended family, after Mark mentions their puzzlement over Jesus’ sudden “career change” from quiet village craftsman to itinerant teacher and healer, it is entirely understandable that they should want to corral him and find out what was going on. However that encounter between the relatives and Jesus unfolded historically, Mark narrates it in a way that highlights what it means to be Church.
We know from St. Paul’s letters that the early Christians spontaneously used kinship language (“brother,” “sister”) to speak of the community that sprang from following Jesus and understanding his way of life as doing the will of God. Those baptized into Christ become brother and sister with a bond that is deeper than the natural kinship of family. Here is a unity deeper than blood. In today's Gospel, Mark illustrates that reality in this encounter between Jesus and the relatives. People responding to the will of God revealed in Jesus find a kinship deeper than family. (Luke makes it clear that Mary lives this reality more fully than anyone; see Luke 11:27-28.)
Now why does Mark, alone among the evangelists, use this episode to frame the Beelzebul controversy? We know from other parts of his Gospel that this kind of sandwich framing is a conscious technique of his, as in his framing the cleansing of the Temple with the two parts of the cursing of the fruitless fig tree and its consequent withering (Mark 12), where one kind of fruitlessness (that of the tree) illustrates another (the emptiness of the Temple religion of the day). We can see the same design in today's Gospel. Jesus' defense of his healing and deliverance ministry as the victory over the kingdom of Satan is framed by the two episodes about the true family of Jesus to illustrate a powerful truth: the formation of the community of disciples of Jesus is the main way that the kingdom of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, conquers the power of evil in the world.
This Sunday's First Reading, the passage from Genesis 3 ending with the declaration about the enmity between the snake and the offspring of Eve, was clearly chosen because later theology has applied this passage to the victory of Christ over evil, precisely the theme of the Gospel passage. And the reading from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians celebrates the Christian share in that victory over evil by pointing to our future share in Christ's risen glory after the “momentary light affliction” of this life.
The special power of the Markan reading, it seems to me, is the way it links the apocalyptic language about driving out Satan with the kinship language about the new family of the Church, deeper than blood. That way of telling the story of Jesus reminds us that rarely is evil ever mastered by direct attack—by war, say, or inquisition or imprisonment. The roots of evil are healed by the grace of God drawing those who seek to do God's will into a community that serves one another and reaches beyond its own interests. Such people know the power of God and rightly call one another sister and brother, no matter what their natural genealogy. The “family values” of Jesus stretch us beyond the private interests of our immediate family to a much larger world.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University