This is the time of year when we think about what Roman Catholics refer to as the “Holy Family.” The exact composition of that family is a matter of some dispute, as we will see, but at this time of the year we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary. Now Mary and Joseph have the responsibility of a child, which pretty much squares with the old expression of “starting a family”. It was certainly a dramatic beginning, and Luke says that “…Mary treasured up all that they said, and dwelt upon it in her thoughts.” (Luke 2:19 TCNT) There was certainly a lot for her to think about.
So, during his ministry, was this:
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and brothers were standing outside, asking to speak to him. Someone told him this, and Jesus replied: “Who is my mother? and who are my brothers?” Then, stretching out his hands towards his disciples, he said: “Here are my mother and my brothers! For any one who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50 TCNT)
One way of looking at this–as many Protestants do–is to use this to denigrate Catholics’ devotion to Mary. If Our Lord was so cavalier about her, what’s wrong with you people? I don’t think, however, that this passage really addresses the issue of how we should consider the Mother of God, at least not on a devotional basis.
A more serious problem for Roman Catholics are the existence of “brothers” of Jesus. Ever since the days of Jerome, Catholic exegetes have commonly held that the term “brothers” isn’t restricted to blood siblings of at least one parent (or adopted ones for that matter) but could include cousins, etc. They do this in part to uphold their idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which in turn buttresses their concept of the “perfect” life as one of celibacy, either in the priesthood or religious life. In an indirect way this passage gives some support to that, but more about that later.
The most significant stumbling block here, especially for Evangelicals these days, is Our Lord’s whole idea of family. Who are those who are closest to us? Jesus’ who attitude towards the family is so radical in many ways that those whose political expression is called “family values” tend to ignore passages such as this. But these were not inserted into the Scriptures to be ignored.
Let’s start with a key goal of Our Lord’s life on the earth. Individually salvation is what we usually think about, but beyond this Jesus Christ came to set up a new bloodline in the human race, one filled with his own. That implies that those who experience a new birth not only set up a new relationship with God, but also with the others who have also experienced that new birth. We now have the family of God; the physical “blood” relatives become secondary.
In a Middle East that then and now was driven by clan and tribe, that was a revolutionary concept. The Jewish people themselves were the tribe par excellence; hadn’t God himself chosen Abraham’s descendants? One reason why we’ve had so much difficulty in that region is that today we think of national loyalties first, while in that region clan and tribe still are premier. (Encouragement of same is a major difference between Islam and Christianity; it reflects Islam’s lack of “new bloodline” theology).
Our Lord certainly understood the implications of his designation of mother and brothers:
Do not imagine that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring, not peace, but the sword. For I have come to set–‘a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And the man who does not take his cross and follow in my steps is not worthy of me. He who has found his life will lose it, while he who, for my sake, has lost his life shall find it. (Matthew 10:34-39 TCNT)
Unfortunately many of his followers, especially in the Evangelical community, don’t understand this idea. Today in the United States we have a group of Christians who, having suddenly discovered their higher birth rate, are not only obsessively natalist but before that obsessed with marriage as the highest state for the Christian. People put on chastity rings while they are “waiting” for the perfect one to come along, but what happens when the real Perfect One has other plans?
“If that,” said the disciples, “is the position of a man with regard to his wife, it is better not to marry.” “It is not every one,” replied Jesus, “who can accept this teaching, but only those who have been enabled to do so. Some men, it is true, have from birth been disabled for marriage, while others have been disabled by their fellow men, and others again have disabled themselves for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let him accept it who can.” (Matthew 19:10-12 TCNT)
The practical result of this is that single people get the short shrift in many churches, which is a tragedy for many reasons.
In that sense Roman Catholics are on to something: the idea that we abandon normal family life to follow our God in a special way. Unfortunately they have overplayed their hand in that regard, making the highest walk with God celibate by mandate and not by call or volition. The result is that many outside of religious life or the priesthood, assuming that they’re in a secondary position, live a secondary Christian life to go with it.
As Christians, we must realise that, through the rebirth, we are a new family in Jesus Christ. The physical family we come out of–irrespective of the nature of that family–is not where our primary loyalty lies. The sooner we understand what that means and act upon it, the sooner we will be the people–individually and collectively–that God intends us to be.