Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Yes, let's focus on the family

Several weeks ago I got a note from one of our Sunday School teachers. The children had been studying the story in the Gospel of John of the wedding at Cana that Jesus, his mother, and his disciples attended. In the story, Mary mentions to Jesus that they have run out of wine at the wedding. Jesus answers Mary by saying: "Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." (John 2:4 RSV) The children in the Sunday School class wanted me to explain how it could be that Jesus would speak to his mother this --well-- disrespectfully.

Uh oh.

I piled up a stack of commentaries on my desk this high and started reading. The commentaries had many theories and rationalizations for what Jesus said to his mother, and I passed a few of their ideas onto the Sunday School teacher, but I was left, in my heart or hearts, with the conviction that our precocious Sunday School children were not all wrong. There is something of an edge, or at least a boundary, in Jesus' reply to Mary. George Beasley-Murray says in the Word Bible Commentary for the Gospel of John: "The import of [Jesus'] statement is to declare that [his] service for the kingdom of God is determined solely by his Father; into that area not even his mother can intrude." (p. 35)

In fact, if you read the Gospels with fresh eyes, it seems pretty clear that Jesus' relationship with his family was not always cozy.

It began already, in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2, when Jesus was 12 years old. Mary, Joseph and Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for the holidays. Jesus took off without telling his parents where he was going. He disappeared and got into conversations with the rabbis without bothering to let his parents know where he was ... for three days! Three days!! When Mary finally found him, she said: "Child, why have you treated us like this?" and Jesus answered: "Did you not know I must be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2: 41-51)

I have tried imagining what would have happened if I had disappeared for three days when I was 12 and then told my mother I had to be where God wanted me to be. I suspect my mother, pious as she was, would have had her own opinion about where God wanted me.

And Jesus has some pretty remarkable things to say about family:

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)

"Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:37)

"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; and one's foes will be members of one's own household." (Matthew 10:35-36)

Then there is the story told in Mark 3:31-35, a story which also appears in Matthew 12 and Luke 8. (The fact that it appears in all three synoptic gospels would suggest it was a particularly important story for the early church.)

Jesus had begun his teaching, preaching and healing ministry when his family -- mother and siblings -- came to fetch him back home. Jesus is teaching in a crowded room, so his family sends in a message to Jesus that they wanted to talk with him. Someone interrupts Jesus and says: "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." Jesus responds by pointing at those who are listening to him teach and saying: "Here are my mothers and my brothers [and sisters]. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

We live in a time when the phrases "pro-family" and "family values" have become partisan political terms. Those who call themselves pro-family obviously mean to suggest that there are others who are anti-family. Those who talk about being pro-family often proclaim themselves pro-family on the basis of their Christian faith.

So if "pro-family" and "family values" are going to be used as political slogans, and Christianity is going to be used to legitimize this agenda, it might be good to know what Jesus had to say about families. You think?

The Gospels make it clear that for Jesus, family was not primarily about biology. Family was about mission. For Jesus, family is not a biological unit based on blood relations but a missional unit based on common commitment and mutual support.

"Who is my family? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

This understanding of family is made clear in yet another example from the Gospel of Luke .

In Luke 18, a rich ruler comes to Jesus to ask him how he might inherit eternal life. When the ruler pushes Jesus, Jesus finally tells him to sell everything he has, give the money away to the poor and follow him. The rich ruler leaves disappointed because he was very rich and could not manage to give up his wealth.

After this, Peter says to Jesus: "We have given up everything; we have left our homes to follow you."

Jesus replies: "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life." (Luke 29-30)

In Mark's version of this saying, Jesus puts it even more dramatically: "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age--houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life." (Mark 10-29-30)

True family is not defined by who physically sired or birthed whom, but by commitment. If our Christian discipleship requires us to leave "natural" family behind, we will gain hundreds of parents, brothers and sister -- our church parents, brothers and sisters-- and all their houses and fields. This is our true family.

It seems to me (let me say this as gently as I can) that those who define family merely in terms of biology -- those who say they want to protect the "traditional" family-- would seem to be, according to Jesus, the ones who are anti-family. Family should never be an excuse to demean or devalue others or to reject loving, caring relationship because they do not fit someone's narrow definition of an acceptable "family" configuration. Jesus' definition of family is much larger and more demanding than caring for --and being in community with-- a nuclear family living in one household.

A poignant expression of all this, I think, is when Jesus hangs on the cross and sees his mother standing there. And he sees his disciple John standing there.

"He said to his mother, 'Woman, here is your son.' Then he said to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home." (John 19: 26-27)

Mary needed a son. John needed a mother. They became a family. It wasn't blood but shared commitment and mutual support that made them family.

Jesus expands our understanding of family. Our children are not just the children born to us biologically or officially adopted by us, but every child who needs our love. And we care for those children born to us or adopted by us not merely because they are legally ours but because it is part of our mission of serving Christ to love them and care for them. But this narrow definition of nuclear or "traditional" family must not limit our caring for Jesus' much larger family.

Blood ties are a dangerous idol. Blut und Boden --blood and soil -- was a Nazi theme: the idea that what makes us related is biology and nationality. This is far from the teachings of Jesus.

Recently we celebrated Mothers' Day. We should honor every mother ... everyone who has cared for us like a mother, some of whom may not even be women. We honor every father, sister, brother, not just those who are related to us by blood.

Who are my mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers? People of every race and nationality and continent and religion and gender and sexual orientation. People who mutually support one another. People who share a commitment to the kingdom of God. People who share a common hope of a human family feasting together at God's heavenly table. These are my mother, fathers, sisters, brothers.

We do well to love the family given to us by birth or adoption as part of our Christian vocation. But it is those whose maternal, paternal, brotherly and sisterly love is not limited by biology or ethnicity who are --it seems to me-- truly pro-family.


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