This is a fairly simple passage (in my mind), yet it took me a long time to write this post. (That doesn’t mean that the reader should expect anything deep.)
SynopsisOver the last few passages Jesus has healed a man on the Sabbath (angering the Pharisees), had great crowds follow him, cast out demons, named the twelve Apostles, been accused of colluding with the devil, and talked about a sin which he called “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” In this passage his mother and brothers come to collect him, presumably because they want to reign him in a bit. Not to put too fine a point on it, they probably think Jesus is insane.
But when they get to the place where Jesus is teaching and send for him, and the people tell Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him, he says something strange; he rhetorically asks them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (verse 33 (ESV), emphasis added), and then looks around at the others in the room, and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (verses 34–35 (ESV), emphasis added).
ThoughtsAnyone who talks about this passage probably starts off exactly the way that I’m about to start, or at the very least brings up this point at some point: Jesus is not against the family, or saying that the family is not important. I would argue (though I might be on shakier ground on this point) that He is not even saying that the family is less important than the Church family, just important in different ways. (As I say, I feel I’m on shaky ground on this one, so I’m not going to argue the point if people disagree.) However, in this particular case Jesus’ family is trying to prevent Him from executing part of His ministry, and when it comes to “choosing your family” or “choosing God,” God always has to come first. (I put those in quotes because it’s rare that there are such stark decision points to be made.)
The ideal case, of course, is that a believer’s family will consist of other believers, in which case there will be a definite closeness between the family that even the relationship with other believers won’t be able to match. In the case where a believer has a family of unbelievers, however, there will be two types of familial relationships that exist: the relationship between the believer and other believers (the Church), and the relationship between the believer and his/her family. This passage is not teaching us that we have to leave our family in this case and choose the Church over our blood relatives. I don’t think we’d want to push this verse any further than to say that when we do have to choose between our families and God, we choose God. Thankfully there are few times that one must make these types of decisions (at least in North America).
In this case Jesus felt it was more important to stay where he was and teach the people with him than for him to go home with his family, so he chose to stay. But that doesn’t mean that he left his family; we see that even up to Jesus’ death on the cross he was still caring for his mother (John 19:25–27 (ESV)), so he definitely remained her son.
For the modern-day Christian, at least in North America, I think the trick is probably twofold:
- How do you know when you should legitimately “choose God” over “choosing your family?” If your non-Christian family has a special occasion happening on a Sunday and you have to choose between that and going to church, what do you do? Is it really such a big deal to miss church for one Sunday? Would you be making a spiritual point with your family by going to church—or would you be simply causing arguments? This is a trivial example—I seem to make all of my examples trivial ones—but there are a thousand other examples people could come up with where the choice would be much more important.
- When you should legitimately “choose God” over “choosing your family,” how do you best approach it? Should you be confrontational with your family and make a point of it, or should you be sheepish about it? (I’m guessing neither of these is the best answer, and something in between is best.) Sometimes Christians in North America can be tempted to try and turn little situations like this into big situations, and personally I think that this approach can be counterproductive, whereas taking an approach whereby you’re firm but not defiant can produce a lot more fruit.