It goes without saying that family is a powerful force…. Today, to be sure, but also in the time of Jesus.
I know that for me, my earliest memories and my most influential forces involve family. For instance, I can recall sitting on the basement floor of our house on South 3rd Street. I was three or four years old and had just bumped my head on a shelf and was willing myself not to cry, because I had never seen my daddy cry. I wanted to be like him… (You can be sure that I quit trying to emulate that particular trait a long time ago..)
When I was six I came home from school to find my mother washing windows in the bedroom I shared with my sister. No doubt she asked me how my day had been. From there the conversation moved to her own journey and she told me she always wanted to go to a Lutheran College, but hadn’t been able to. I didn’t say it out loud, but I vowed then and there that since she couldn’t, I would. And I did and then some…
Several years ago Time Magazine had a piece regarding the influence of siblings entitled “The New Science of Siblings.” The article points to how the particular mix of our own family configuration shapes us our whole life long and that regardless of how rocky the road has been between us, as we age we migrate towards one another once more. For brothers and sisters share our formative past in a way no one else does.
So while it would surely not be entirely accurate to equate the ‘families’ you and I have experienced with what would have shaped Jesus, I would guess it would still be fair to say that then, as now, it was a powerful force. In Jesus’ time, to be sure, it was expected that families would live with several generations together so you can be certain the influences felt were compounded by the pressures of more than just what you and I know to be the ‘nuclear family.’ In Jesus’ time, as I understand it, gender roles were more rigid — and so, at least formally, those influences tended to be especially shaped by the patriarch. And yet, for all that may be different, it’s not hard to imagine Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers, having heard of what he was up to now, catching up with him and doing all they can to reign him in. Because they loved him, to be sure, but also to protect him and the family name.
Family is, indeed, a powerful force. It defines us from our earliest moments. It shapes our aspirations and gives us what we need to pursue them. It teaches us how to live with others and influences our expectations of all the relationships we will hold. I have been privileged in recent years to work with groups of pastors as together we take a deeper look at the families that made us who we are. It’s a wonder to see the courage with which these leaders tell the stories of both the life giving and the painful which mark those ever-important systems. It is also easy to hear in all of our stories how easily we can become enslaved by all that has been. And yet, it appears that the ‘family’ Jesus speaks of now is pointing us in a whole new direction.
Oh, I expect it’s easy to hear Jesus’ words today as rejection of the family who were once his entire world. That’s not what’s happening here, though. Rather, Jesus is expanding the definition of family to a be a web of relationships that opens up places within it for a whole host of others. Jesus moves our understanding of family as simply a place of genetic origins (which, to be sure, does a great deal of good in terms of protecting and continuing life itself), to an understanding of family being a group of people that is marked instead by the choices we make as he says that “whoever does the will of God is my mother and my brother and my sister.”
And so I wonder now about the ‘family’ Jesus speaks of now. I wonder how it is like those other families we know so well with all their power over us. And I wonder how this new family can be a place where people are never enslaved, but always set free to be all that God calls us to be. I’m not entirely sure I’ve experienced that ‘family’ in all of its fullness. For all the truth that most every congregation I’ve ever been a part of has liked to think of itself as ‘family,’ more often than not they and I have fallen back into our most basic understandings of ‘family.’ We tend to equate it with what we have known instead of what we could know — what Jesus calls us to now. Sometimes that’s not all bad. Sometimes it’s not so good, especially when the going gets tough. How about you? How have you experienced the ‘family’ Jesus points us to now?
- How have you experienced ‘family?’ What stories come to mind when you think of how you were and are continuing to be shaped by your family?
- What is your first reaction to Jesus’ words? Do they make you anxious? Relieved? Hopeful?
- What does it mean to ‘do the will of God?’ How does this marker of family differ from others you have experienced?
- How does the ‘family of God’ in your congregation emulate Jesus’ description here? If it does not, how might we move closer to this in our experience?
- If not in a congregation, where and how have you experienced the ‘family’ Jesus points to now? How would you describe your experience to someone who has not shared this?