What a Makes a Family?

What Makes a Family? By Matthew L. Skinner

If you’re looking for snapshots of well-adjusted and happy parent-child relationships from the ancient world, the Bible probably shouldn’t be on your short list of sources. Consider Jesus’ family. The New Testament preserves evidence suggesting that Jesus’ relationship with his family was rather strained. An important source is our reading this Sunday, Mark 3:20-35. “When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, ‘He’s out of his mind!’”.

Yet, Christian tradition has had a difficult time reckoning with the perhaps troubling idea of family strife between Jesus and his kin. Consider what translators and even other Gospel authors have done with Mark 3:21:

•The King James Version totally removes Jesus’ family from this part of the scene, saying: “And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, ‘He is beside himself.’”

•The New Revised Standard Version puts the disparagement of Jesus in the mouths of others, saying: “When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”

•The authors of Matthew and Luke, whose books were produced after the Gospel of Mark and who included scenes similar to Mark 3:20-35, omitted from their narratives any suggestion that Jesus’ family thought he was crazy.

The story told in the wider context, Mark 3:20-35, sets Jesus’ family in comparison to influential religious leaders (legal scholars based in Jerusalem). Both groups express an inability to understand who Jesus really is. The religious authorities conclude he is possessed by Satan. His family assumes he has lost his sanity. In an ancient setting, these diagnoses were roughly equivalent to each other.

The scene underscores how those who presumably were in great positions to make sense of Jesus still were not immediately able to see him as God’s agent. As Jesus announced and re-inaugurated God’s intentions for human flourishing, many could not overcome the disorienting character of his message. Even close relatives and religious insiders were bewildered by what he said, which threatened to disrupt so many aspects of human society.

When the crowd says that his family is summoning him from outside the crowded building, Jesus answers with a shocking statement: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? Look, here [these people seated around me] are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister and mother.”

It’s good news for those inside the house, who seek to identify with Jesus and his message. It’s also good news for Mark’s earliest readers who found themselves estranged from their biological families (compare Mark 10:28-30). Bad news, however, for his relatives on the outside, and for others with high regard for customary notions of honor and social stability.

Jesus redefines the criteria for who constitutes his true family. This goes beyond striking back at his mother and brothers’ opinion about his sanity. More foundationally, Jesus makes a claim about what it might mean to belong to other people. He makes a claim about identity. Families, or “households,” were the primary social and economic units of first-century society. Jesus speaks to deeply embedded cultural assumptions when he determines his true family not by blood relations or kinship ties but by doing the will of God.

No wonder some people are bent on killing him in this book.

Jesus was hardly the first thinker to use familial terms to describe the membership of a movement or an in-group. Still, his comment would strike many of his contemporaries as dangerous. What’s a “family” supposed to consist of now? For Jesus, family — at least, one type of family — is a community of people joined as an expression of their commitment to discover and manifest God’s will.