|2 Samuel 6:12-15,
Psalm 24:7, 8, 9, 10
Understandably, many people find today’s gospel reading puzzling and scandalous.
Aware of the Church’s understanding of the perpetual virginity of Mary, they are puzzled by this reference (the first in the Gospel of Mark) to the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus. And they are scandalized by Jesus’ apparently cold reception to those siblings and, especially, to his mother. The Catholic tradition has explained the brothers in two different ways: (a) In Hebrew and Aramaic, the word for brother can refer to cousins as well as what English means by “brothers”; or (b) in a situation common in the ancient world, Joseph’s first wife died, leaving him with several sons and daughters, whom he brought to his marriage with Mary.
The scandal of Jesus’ apparent rebuff of his family is not so easily explained. It helps to consider the fuller narrative. Jesus’ behavior had suddenly changed in a dramatic way. The mild-mannered bachelor-craftsman of Nazareth had very quickly taken on something close to the life-style of his cousin John, the man who went about dressed like Elijah, preaching fire and brimstone warnings, and dunking people in the Jordan River. What’s more, Jesus had suddenly become a healer and was attracting a lot of public attention. Any family, surely any mother, would become concerned over such an abrupt change in behavior. So we can understand what Mark reports ten verses before today’s reading: “Then he came home and again the crowd gathered, so that they could not even eat a meal. When his relatives heard this they set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”
Now in today’s Gospel we hear that they are at the door asking for him. And Jesus takes the occasion to say, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And scanning those seated around him in a circle he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother!”
It’s a bold teaching. Notice, what’s going on here is, at bottom, not a dismissal of his blood relatives but a dramatic proclamation of his Good News. In gathering a community responding to his announcement of a new way of hearing and doing God’s will, Jesus is creating a new way of being human together that is deeper, even, than the intimacy of one’s family of origin. The source of this new “family” is coming to know God as “Father” in a way that goes way beyond any blood father. That discovery, mediated by the son, Jesus, makes men and women “brothers’ and “sisters” in a union that can be deeper than blood.
Mark is aware that his readers know that Jesus extended family—mother and his brothers and sisters—do not remain on the “outside.” One of those brothers at the door, James, is the literal “brother of the Lord” who, Paul and Luke tell us, eventually emerges as the leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem! Mark risks puzzlement and scandal to convey Jesus’ teaching about the new “family” of the Church as dramatically as possible. I suspect he did it that way so that his readers (we included) might be shocked into the realization that being church, following the will of God according to the way of Jesus, really is a new way of relating to the other human beings.
Now it should be apparent why St. Paul, in his letters, is always
referring to fellow Christians as brothers and sisters. That wasn’t just
a sign of affection, though it surely included affection. It was a way
of speaking that came from Jesus, springing from the new way of being “family”
that Jesus began. If that seems like to idealized a way of speaking of
the flawed community we know as church, it may be that we have not allowed
the Father to grow us into who we really are.
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