“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:46-50).
’Tis the season of family gatherings. For years the debate in our house was whether to break the sacrosanct tradition by inviting nonfamily persons to Christmas dinner. My children and I don’t see eye to eye on music, on politics, on cursive, on Christopher Columbus, and on which persons ought to be able to marry. But all are bullish on family: “Family do or die.” “Blood is thicker than water.” Tollbooth massacres notwithstanding, the closing credits of The Godfather will always find someone in the room sighing, “At least they loved their family.”
Jesus is different. There He is, teaching to a packed house, and a messenger makes his way through with a summons: “Your mother and brothers want to see you.” Okay, mother and brothers trump strangers, right? The Rabbi will surely excuse Himself, if for no other reason than to see if there’s a family emergency. Even a pastor once served notice to our congregation that the only people sure to get his fast-track cell phone attention are his wife and kids.
But Jesus seems to blow it off. At least I would take it that way if I were Mary cooling her heels at the gate. He does not say, “James and John, take over, I’ll be back in five.” He does not use the occasion to bring up the pertinent passages in Scripture about the person not providing for his relatives being worse than a heathen (1 Timothy 5:8). He answers in a way that a church committee might call a violation of the Fifth Commandment—had not Jesus Himself committed it. In one fell swoop, Jesus puts family in its place.
What is its place? Family is a good thing, instituted by God. It is the Creator’s bright idea for a human population delivery system and a Messiah transmission and incubation mechanism. In addition to this utilitarian aspect, family is for each of us individually the locus of a kind of affection best summarized in the saccharine saying “home sweet home”—all those sights and smells and memories that are banal in themselves but are special just for being ours. My sister and I have been divided by an ocean for 35 years, but there is not a day I don’t think of her and feel that worn-slipper comfort and lack of pretense that comes from nothing more than having shared a set of parents and a bedroom.