“Who Are My Mother and Brothers?”: Jesus and the Redefining of Family

He was still speaking to the crowds when suddenly His mother and brothers were standing outside wanting to speak to Him. Someone told Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to You.”

But He replied to the one who told Him, “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, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46–50)

If you grew up in North America, like I did, you probably suffer a handicap when it comes to hearing the impact of this statement as Jesus said it.

It was easily one of his most controversial declarations — one of those things he said that immediately turned the world upside-down.

Ours is a hugely individualistic society in which the concept of “found family,” something that’s replete in pop culture from Avengers to Friends, makes intuitive sense. We feel that the old blood-and-DNA-based idea of family is too small, that “family” should include those whom we love and who love us, those who are truly there for us and on our side. (For many of us this includes our biological families; for others it does not.)

(This intuition, by the way, is not new — it’s not foreign to the human experience throughout history. We can see it in operating in the Old Testament in many places. Solomon wrote in Proverbs that “a friend loves at all times” and “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” It’s just that in our own day, biological family has fractured so deeply that “found family” sometimes seems to be the only kind we really have.)

But for most of human history, biological kinship ties have meant almost everything, second only, perhaps, to ritual ties. In Jesus’s day this was true. Your family determined everything: who you were, where you lived, your place in society, the job you worked, the resources you could access, the spouse you married, the god you worshipped. None of this was especially elastic.

Which means that if you think family is a source of pressure, guilt, and obligation to you now, well, baby, you have no idea.

In this passage in Matthew, Jesus had just finished rebuking and challenging the Pharisees (and, by extension, the crowds). As he was still speaking to them, several members of his kinship group showed up and asked to talk with him.

There was a social obligation here: an expectation from everyone that he would drop what he was doing to immediately give attention where attention was owed. This was his mother, whom he had a legal and societal debt to honor, and his brothers, who would have functioned in critical family roles especially since his father, Joseph, was dead by this time.

But Jesus didn’t do that. To be clear, he didn’t snub them either — there’s no indication in the passage that Jesus’s response to their arrival was to ignore them for hours while he just continued teaching. Most likely, he turned and gave them his welcoming attention right after making his grand gesture to the crowd.

But he saw an opportunity to communicate something absolutely vital to the kingdom of God, so he took it.

He stretched out his hand to his disciples — the twelve apostles and everyone else who was following him — and declared before the crowds and the Pharisees and his relatives that they were family too.

Jesus announced the nature of his found family — God’s found family. He announced the true substance of his kinship ties.

The messenger and surely the crowd expected that Jesus would turn away from them to turn toward his biological family; that at this point, they would become lesser while blood took top priority.

Even in our highly individualistic culture, this is still the experience of most of us, and maybe even more so since our definition of family has become nuclear instead of extended. (Ask any long-term single in a church congregation if family still enjoys a place of priority and privilege — if they feel that they matter as much to anyone as a spouse or a child or a sibling does.)

But Jesus’s value system was different.

At the point where most people become exclusive (yes, even in our culture), he instead brought us in.

It Always Begins with Following Him

It’s important to recognize that Jesus drew the definition of his family around those who do the will of the Father. For him, belonging actually is defined by doing. While he didn’t determine his family by descent, he also didn’t define it by doctrine — he did not say that “those who believe the right things are my family.”

For Jesus, faith and works always go hand-in-hand. To speak of one without the other is nonsense.

But it’s also important to note that “doing the will of the Father,” in this case, amounted to following Jesus. The disciples surely were not perfect. They did not keep the law flawlessly. They did not love wholeheartedly. They did not even believe without doubt. But their feet were on the path: they were shadowing Jesus wherever he went and trying to learn from him.

And that was enough to qualify them as doing God’s will. Following Jesus with a sincere heart, however imperfectly, made them family. The kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit: it’s never about how good we are, but about how generous he is.

Nevertheless this emphasis on doing the Father’s will brings us back to Jesus’s constant theme of authenticity and repentance, that we cannot embrace hypocrisy — faking it — and still be counted faithful. We can’t own the kingdom unless we own our poverty, face it truly and walk with it every single day. We can do this joyfully and fearlessly because our inadequacy is the gateway to grace. The only one we’ve got, in fact. The Beatitudes are not just a beginning; they are the pathway we walk all of our Christian lives.

And here Jesus says that if we walk that path, if we repent of our sin and follow him, and we try to love God and our neighbor even though it’s often ugly and squalid and poverty-stricken down here, we are family. We are his. We are not just God’s servants or slaves or peons; we are his mother, and sisters, and brothers.

We Are His Mother and Sisters and Brothers

I can’t read those words without them reverberating in my soul in a way that few other things do. I encourage you to read them this way too, to let the light hit them and come back to you like sunlight off a mirror, to let them echo down to your deepest places.

This is your Lord speaking. This is your God speaking. He sees every one of us. The messenger didn’t tell Jesus his sisters had come, but he included his sisters when he declared his family. He saw Mary Magdalene there, and Salome, and the “many women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and ministered to Him,” as Matthew calls them in a later chapter.

He saw not only Mary, his mother from Nazareth, but also the other mothers who followed him. He saw the men, his brothers — not merely his students or his converts, but his companions. In this particular moment he didn’t even call them “children.” He elevated every one of them to a status equal to his own and declared them brothers, sisters, mothers.

Jesus was God incarnate not only to reveal the Father to us, though he did that, but also to build a family with us that will never pass away. He created kinship ties with us. He makes it possible for all of us to look at Jesus and say, “This is my brother. This is my son. He is my family. He is one of us.”

And as we learn to know him in this way, we can serve him with a familial love: the love we feel for our children and spouses and siblings and found families alike.

We Are Family to Each Other

And then of course, there’s the corollary: that if we are family to Jesus, we are family to one another too.

Hear me out, these are not just nice words that we say to make people feel included on Sunday morning. This is a reality; it is the reality of the kingdom of God.

We are called to unity. We are called to have love for one another. We are called to deep affection for each another. We are called to faithfulness, loyalty, and generous goodness in our relationships with other Christians. We are to be friends who stick closer than brothers, who will lay down our lives for one another. This family is not defined by race or ethnicity or language or culture or age or affiliation or even creed; it’s defined by a shared master and a shared love.

Jesus’s declaration of family was so controversial because it upended the natural social order of humanity. But he didn’t soft-pedal it, and neither should we.

Just as Jesus’s kingdom is not of this earth, his family is not of this earth either — but it’s on this earth. And it is ours. It belongs to us if we belong to him. The church is our kinship group, our primary family tie. Jesus declared it to be so.

It is our task to find a way to live this reality as he asks us to do.

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This is Part 220 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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2 responses to ““Who Are My Mother and Brothers?”: Jesus and the Redefining of Family”

  1. Elva Avatar

    I cannot seem to get your posts beyond 217 … this is all the series of Matthew shows

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Ahh, thanks for letting me know! I got behind on updating it but I’ll go ahead and get that done right now. Thanks, Elva!

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