The untouched idol of the American evangelical church is family.
I love my family. No family is perfect, but I couldn’t be more grateful for a healthy family: a mom and dad who loved me and celebrated 43 years of marriage this year, a sister who is still one of my best friends, and in-laws I genuinely enjoy
And I overflow with thanksgiving for my wife and two children, who are a constant source of love and joy in my life.
It’s hard to make sense of what Jesus taught about family and lived out in his life. Jesus’ relationship with his family is complicated. At a first pass, you would probably say that his relationship with his family is flat out bad. Is that the case? And how should Jesus’ relationship with his family influence our relationship with our family?
The Hard Edges
Let’s examine four scenes in Jesus’ life that involve family. The first three of these scenes have some pretty hard edges regarding Jesus' teaching on family.
The first scene is the twelve year old Jesus with his mom and dad at the Temple in Jerusalem. The family had come up for Passover, but when the family packed up to return home, Jesus stays at the temple, listening to the rabbis and asking them questions. Mary and Joseph realize Jesus has gone missing and return, anxious and fearful. They find him in the temple and Mary says what any mother would say, “Why have you treated us so?” Jesus responds simply, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”[i] These seems pretty disrespectful. At a minimum, shouldn’t Jesus have let his parents know where he was?
In the second scene, we meet Jesus calling a man to be his disciple. “Follow me,” Jesus says. The man appears interested, but on one condition, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” A reasonable request, right? Jesus responds with apparent callousness, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”[ii] Oh my, that seems harsh.
In the third scene we see Jesus’ family show up at a home where Jesus is doing ministry. The home is crowded with those listening to Jesus teach. Mary and Jesus’ siblings ask those outside if they could speak to Jesus, and the message makes its way to Jesus. Jesus responds, “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.”[iii] Yikes. If my mom and dad showed up at our home during connection group and I gave that little speech, I would be up a creek.
There seems to be a theme here. If you want to get Jesus in a mood, bring up the topic of family. If you want to see Jesus at his coldest, ask him about family issues. If you want to have Jesus rebuff you, suggest that your commitment to your family is important to you.
The Softer Side of Jesus with His Family
But hold on, there’s another side to the story.
Let’s look at the fourth scene before we draw a conclusion:
Jesus hangs on the cross, naked. Death is at his doorstep. Eleven of his twelve disciples have either betrayed him, deserted him, or denied him. Only one remains with him: his best friend, John. And there with John are a few of Jesus’ female disciples and Jesus’ mother, Mary.
Hanging on the cross in agony, Jesus’ thoughts are with his mom. Jesus turns to Mary, who is standing near John, “Woman, behold, your son!” and then he turns to John, “Behold, your mother!”[iv] These words brim with care.
There are profound layers to Jesus’ act. Jesus’ words show that, despite what we might have surmised by the earlier encounters, Jesus had an intimate relationship with his mother. Jesus truly is honoring and caring for his mom. Somehow, even with his itinerant ministry (and even though he had siblings), he had taken responsibility for her care until this moment.
This raises the question, with Joseph having apparently died, why does the duty of Mary’s care not continue in its normal course, to the next eldest brother in the family? Why was it not? Because in this final moment of care for his family, Jesus is embodying everything that he had spoken through his ministry: our first family is the family of God. Jesus deeply trusted John, and so he hands Mary over to John. This profound act prophetically realizes Jesus’ earlier words to his mom and siblings: our deepest identity is found as children of God and alongside our adopted brothers and sisters in this family.
If we turn back to the beginning of Luke, we see that Mary did not have an estranged relationship with Jesus. Where does Luke draw his material from about the first twelve years of Jesus’ life? From Mary. Luke concludes the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood this way, “And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.”[v] Mary was Luke’s witness of Jesus’ early years. And these memories were sweet, not bitter for Mary. She ultimately understood the purpose and person of her son, Jesus.
We would do well to reinterpret the third scenario as well. . Most commentators agree it is unlikely this potential father was actually dead and that this man was just sewing up funeral arrangements. More likely, this potential disciple’s dad is healthy and he is using familial obligations as a way to squirm out of true discipleship. Jesus is not as anti-family as it might appear at first, but his commitment to family is still qualified.
What does this mean regarding our familial relationships? It means that, on the one hand, many of us need to take stock of how we privilege and prioritize our blood relatives. If we are a child of God, our first family is God’s family. Our identity is rooted first as adopted children of the Most High God through the sacrifice of our brother, Jesus.[vi]
What this means is that at times our commitment to Christ might confuse and even frustrate our family. Our blood family isn’t to come first for us, our calling to our Heavenly Father and his family comes first. That might mean that we prioritize our commitment to the local church in a way that doesn’t make sense to them. It might mean that we are clearly called by God to do things that don’t make sense to them.
But that isn’t to be confused with a blank check to ignore or not care for our blood family. This call doesn’t overturn the reality that we are incredibly made one flesh with our spouse or the commandment for us to honor our father and mother.[vii] We are called to love our neighbor[viii]—those God has placed near to us in our lives. Our family members are often one of the closest “neighbors” in our lives, and so our sacrificial love ought to spill over to them in the same way it does to our neighbors.
At times our commitment to Christ might confuse and even frustrate our family. We Americans typically frame our commitments this way: God, family, country. But Jesus challenges those commitments. A biblical reframing is simple: God, and our neighbor. Within the category of neighbor, we have tiers of neighbors. Those would go something like: God’s family, our biological family, those we work with/live next to, our country. That might not seem like that different a list than God, family, country, but there are huge differences practically.
The messy, beautiful, grace-filled love of Jesus ought to flow from us to our families in ways that baffle those who don’t believe and encourage those who do.
Let’s love our families the way Jesus did: as we prioritize God’s family first and love our blood radically as the neighbor God has granted us.
Photo credit: Andre Hunter/Unsplash
[i] Luke 2:48-49.
[ii] Luke 9:59-60
[iii] Matthew 12:48-50
[iv] John 19:26-27
[v] Luke 2:51
[vi] Hebrews 2:11; Romans 8:29
[vii] Deuteronomy 5:16
[viii] Matthew 22:36-40