Chapter 6: The Call to Extend the Family (Matthew 12:46-50)

Returning God's Call: The Challenge of Christian Living
by John C. Purdy

Chapter 6: The Call to Extend the Family (Matthew 12:46-50)

While [Jesus] was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man 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 is my brother, and sister, and mother."-Matthew 12:46-50

Jesus ducked a meeting with his mother and brothers; he said that his disciples were mother and brother enough for him. In resisting the claims of his relatives, he illustrated a contemporary quandary of ours. In designating his disciples as his extended family, he provided us with a solution to that quandary. The quandary may be stated as a question: Who is my true family? The solution may be stated as follows: In family matters, our Christian calling is to be loyal to the extended family of the faithful.

Many people today share nagging life concerns: Who am I? Where did I come from? The questions are not asked by adopted children only; they have become the questions of the larger society. In a mobile, rapidly changing, always moving culture, it isn't easy to keep a firm grasp on one's identity. Identity crises are as catching as the common cold! And so the question, Who is my real family? becomes more than curiosity about one's genealogy.

When we have read the incident in Matthew 12:46-50, questions linger in our own minds: Who is my true family? Who has claim to the time, attention, energy, money, and prayers that naturally belong to my blood relatives -- the father who sired me, the mother who nursed me, the brothers and sisters who share the same genes? Many come in the guise of mother and sister and brother, demanding that we turn aside from what we are doing and honor their demands. Not just two or three people clutch at our sleeves and claim the rights of mother and siblings; there is a host of them! Sects, tribes, churches, states, corporations, cultures, classes-each ask that we recognize a bond that is as strong as blood. In no particular order of priority or importance, they are as follows:

There are those groups that for want of a better name we call sects or cults: They are what Eric Hoffer calls "true believers," who would meld us into themselves in a bonding as intimate and permanent as the biological family. The Moonies -- members of the Unification Church -- are such a group, and they have many counterparts that have not earned the Moonies' questionable reputation. The great appeal of true believers is that they offer to be our surrogate family. They promise-particularly to the young adult-more than the grudging acceptance based on duty and blood of the natural family. Home with them is more than Robert Frost's "'place where, when you have to go there they have to take you in." They offer the warmth and intimacy that many recall knowing as infants with their mothers; they offer the authority and value strength many can remember honoring in their fathers. And to the young adult they offer these things at the same time that they offer a chance to leave the nest and make a break with the biological family. In Habits of the Heart the authors say of our American culture, "However painful the process of leaving home, for parents and for children, the really frightening thing for both would be the prospect of the child never leaving home." The sect or cult offers a double benefit: You can leave home without giving up family; we will be your family.

The church, as represented in the mainline denominations, makes a similar offer to the individual, although mainline churches are in the front ranks of those who despise and fear the cults. In the rhetoric of the churches are considerable references to the Christian fellowship as family. Congregational programs are shot through with references to "our church family." It is certainly no accident that the titles of Father, Brother, and Sister have found their way into ecclesiastical language. If you asked a sampling of church members to pick one metaphor to describe their relationship to a congregation, you would find many using the term "family." And if you asked the average church member what he or she wished his or her congregation to be more like, it would again be the family metaphor that would come forth.

This use of the metaphor of the family to designate the church gets support from theologians. John P. Meier writes (p. 140), "For [Matthew] the church is the family of God, incorporated into the communal life of the Godhead through baptism."

The list of groups claiming to be one's true family is a long one, and no great purpose is served by being exhaustive. But the following claimants deserve some mention, however brief. The race or tribe makes its claim; "we white folks," "we black folks," are phrases used to command loyalty, as though racial bonds had a right to demand allegiance similar to those of the biological family.

While the nation-state does not claim to be our extended family, it often lays claim to the family as one of its essential building blocks. The subtle suggestion is that the family finds its reason for being in the larger entity. National leaders are prone to appeal to the family as essential to the well-being of the nation. In his commencement speech at Howard University in 1965, Lyndon Johnson said, "The family is the cornerstone of our society. More than any other force it shapes the attitudes, the hopes, the ambitions, and the values of the child." In his State of the Union message in 1985, Ronald Reagan proclaimed, "As the family goes, so goes our civilization."

Then also there is the claim of the corporation -- broadly understood as any body that supplies us with a workplace, a work life, and income. This may be a literal corporation, such as IBM or GE; or it may be a body like the CIO or AFL, the presbytery, the board of education, the Department of Defense, the state legislature, Lincoln High School, the Pittsburgh Pirates, or the Second Platoon. For his book The Good War, Studs Terkel interviewed a number of World War II infantrymen. They said they fought not so much for honor or cause or even country as they did for their buddies; not to let the guys down-that was the most important thing in their lives as soldiers. Many confessed that when they got home their feelings of loyalty to spouses and parents were never as strong as their feelings for their fellows in the Second Platoon.

A Familiar Tug-of-War

Most of us have known what it is to be pulled in opposite directions by those claiming to be our family. Whether one is caught in a tug-of-war between a religious sect and one's parents, between the demands of the workplace and the claims of wife and children, or between the love of fellow soldiers and the love of wife and parents, the strains are very real. We can empathize with the dilemma faced by Jesus in the incident described in Matthew . He was at work in the company of friends when his mother and brothers came and asserted a claim to his attention. He was caught between legitimate demands. The Fifth Commandment, "Honor your father and your mother," could not be shrugged off; neither could the command to love your neighbor, represented by the people Jesus was teaching. The dilemma is real; the solution is anything but simple.

The problem of family loyalty is compounded in our generation by the breakup -- some would call it the breakdown -- of traditional family values. The question, Who is my family? has another question that gets asked alongside it: What is a family? The traditional notion that a family consists of a father and a mother and one or more children is under serious attack. Single women argue both for their right to have children outside of marriage and their right to raise children with no father on the scene . In the winter of 1987 a nurse from Madison, Wisconsin, was interviewed on television. A single woman in her thirties, she intended to be impregnated by a friend in order that she might have a child, whom she intended to raise by herself.

This woman may not be dismissed as pathetically mistaken. Writing in God's Fierce Whimsy, a group of feminine theologians said, "We celebrate also the possibility for which we struggle: that someday all of us -- and our sisters, daughters, granddaughters, god-daughters, namesakes, and nieces -- will inhabit a world in which motherhood is fully and freely a gift and an option, available to all who desire it, whether married or single, lesbian or straight." This is in defiance not only of conventional Christian and American values but of what anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski called "the principle of legitimacy." All cultures, he said, insist that every child shall have a recognized father. "The most important moral and legal rule concerning the physiological side of kinship," he wrote in Sex, Culture, and Myth, "is that no child should be brought into the world without a man -- and one man at that -- assuming the role of sociological father, that is, guardian and protector, the male link between the child and the rest of the community."

It is this clash between the lived experience of the human race and the values of modern radicals that made the Baby M case of 1987 such a national sensation. A woman agreed to be impregnated by the semen of the husband of another woman and to bear a child for that couple. After the baby was born, the surrogate mother could not bear to surrender the baby as promised. The case went to court and had most of America talking about it for several weeks.

We should not have been so taken by surprise. This happened in a country where in 1979, at a White House Conference on the Family, participants could not agree as to whether or not there is a societal norm that could be described simply as the American Family. Is it any wonder, then, that large numbers of persons in our society ask in all seriousness, Who is my true family? When Jesus said, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" he spoke for all of us.

The Solution

However, the text in Matthew offers a solution as well as illustrating a problem. Jesus pointed to his disciples and 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." Both sentences are important. With the first Jesus set aside the claim of his mother and siblings to have first call on his time and efforts. He waved his hand at his friends and associates and named them his mother and brothers. With that one wave of his hand, Jesus relativized the claims of his biological and social family. When in the whole history of the world has one wave of the hand wiped out so many millennia of custom?

The second sentence is equally important: "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother." "The disciples. . . constitute the real family of Jesus... by reason of the fact that they do God's will" (Hill, p. 222). Since it is doing God's will that makes one a member of Jesus' family, it seems right to broaden the concept of true family to include all who do God's will, so that Jesus' disciples represent the whole company of the faithful-past, present, and future. It is to this great company that Jesus owes family loyalty. It is to them he appeals for freedom from the immediate demands of blood kinship.

"Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven" is a tent under which a large company may be assembled. Who, in biblical terms, has a right to be under that tent? Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, surely; if the patriarchs and matriarchs don't belong there, who does? Also under the canopy belong the prophets who spoke Yahweh's word: Samuel, Huldah, Amos. And surely David, who was a king after God's heart. We would also want to name the faithful listed in the New Testament: Mary, Peter, and Paul. Nor would we want to omit from our list those whom we name as our forebears in the church: Augustine, Aquinas, Catherine, Theresa, Calvin, Luther, Witherspoon, Knox. We all need to make our own lists; any attempt to make a complete one will surely leave out some who ought to be there. When you make your roster, don't forget such modern saints as Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day.

When we are pressed to choose or value or take a stand on the basis of true family, it is this company of the faithful to whom we owe our loyalty. Their claim on us is stronger than the claim of our biological parents and siblings. It is their opinions and acceptance that we must value above all other group pressures or pulls.

The earliest Christian writing said to be by a woman is the diary of Perpetua, a citizen of Carthage. With others who refused to worship the Roman emperor, she was imprisoned during the persecutions of A.D. 202-203. She refused to heed the pleas of her father, who visited her in prison and urged her to compromise her stand. She gave up to her father her newborn son, whom she had been nursing in prison, choosing to surrender her role as mother rather than submit. In her diary she describes her appearance before the governor: "[He] said, 'Have pity on your father's grey head; have pity on your infant son; offer sacrifice for the emperor's welfare.' But I answered, 'I will not.' Hilarion asked, 'Are you a Christian?' And I answered, 'I am a Christian.' " Our Christian calling is to listen for voices like that of Perpetua and be faithful to them.

There is a corollary to this. In family matters our loyalty can never be to ourselves, to our individual self-interest, to conscience, or even to God alone. That is a modern heresy that has deluded millions into rebellion or submission. Our culture insists that adolescents learn to define themselves over and against their parents. We teach young people that they are to throw off the parental yoke and assert their individuality. Sometimes this cultural demand gets translated into a moral demand and is given religious sanction. But in the terms of what we have learned from Matthew 12:46-50, the choice is never between the family and me; it is always, in family matters, between families. The question in family matters is never: Shall I be loyal to the family or to myself? It is always: Who is my true family? And the scriptural answer is: Your true family is the company of the faithful, the saints with whom you have communion.

Honor Your Father and Your Mother

To be loyal to the company of the faithful is truly to honor father and mother in obedience to the Fifth Commandment. It is not an evasion of that command; it is a fulfillment of it. It is a recognition that we have a "Father in heaven" -- to use Jesus' metaphor -- from whom we learn who is our true mother and who are our true brothers and sisters.

This is admittedly a radical, not to say revolutionary, interpretation of the Fifth Commandment. In Jesus' culture, as in most cultures of the world from the earliest days until the present, to honor one's parents meant to obey them; to put their welfare and their values and their wishes above one's own. To suggest that another group had a prior claim on one's honoring was surely a radical break with tradition. But that seems the clear teaching of the passage from Matthew. John Meier writes (p. 140), "The disciples, who have left their own families for Jesus (8:22; 10:37) are his real mother and brothers. What Jesus asked of his disciples -- the breaking of family ties -- he himself now undertakes."

In practical terms, of course, honoring the company of the faithful and obeying one's earthly parents and siblings is often one and the same thing. For who has taught us to know the faithful if not our family? Where did we learn the stories of Abraham and Sarah if not at our mother's knee? And would we indeed claim Jesus as Sovereign if our fathers had not done the same? We need to be careful not to set up a false rivalry between natural family and the company of the faithful when, in fact, such a rivalry does not often exist.

But sometimes such a rivalry does exist, and it is surely one of the most painful of all human dilemmas. When I was eighteen, I had a college friend who was the most committed Christian I had ever met. When I visited his suburban home, I was shocked to find that he and his father were at serious odds. His father, a faithful church member and a good citizen and a hard worker, could not understand his son's passion for God's kingdom. He thought his son's decision to be a minister was a waste of time and money, not to mention the young man's commitment to pacifism and socialism. When I heard my friend try to defend himself against his father, I heard echoes of the young Jesus in the temple, saying to his upset parents, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49).

One of the most poignant experiences for young people growing up in our society is to espouse some cause such as civil rights or world peace -- a cause they learned to love in their home or church -- and then find that their parents are opposed to overt action on behalf of social justice. It is at best bittersweet to be forced to say to one's own parents, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?... Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother."

In English literature there are three classic family matters in which persons are pressed to choose between loyalty to biological family and loyalty to some other group or norm. We have already illustrated the tug-of-war between the parent and the child who is bent on a vocational course that the parent doesn't like. That conflict is brilliantly delineated in C. P. Snow's novel, The Conscience of the Rich. The protagonists are Charles March and his father. The Marches are a wealthy family living in London in the times between the two wars. Charles, largely to please his father, launches a career as a trial lawyer, but suddenly he throws that over and starts the study of medicine. His father is outraged; he understands the decision for what it is, an act of independence. He is never reconciled to Charles's new occupation. He uses an ancient Japanese phrase to describe the feeling caused by the rupture between him and his son, "the darkness of the heart."

Another classic dilemma is that of the parent who cannot let the child become independent. In a series of novels about life in a small town in Canada, Robertson Davies tells of the plight of Solomon Bridgetower, who is tyrannized by his invalid mother. She insists that he live with her and abide by her wishes about girlfriends and all sorts of things. When she dies, she leaves her fortune tied up in such a way that Solly has to wait for years to have free use of the money. From beyond the grave her long hand reaches back to jerk him around. We can all tell stories about such relationships, in which the mother -- or some other close relative -- used blood ties as slave bracelets.

In counseling with young persons, I often found them torn between the need to be free and the need to obey. It was not that they lacked courage to rebel. (It does not seem to me that it takes courage to rebel, only a kind of willful need to self-destruct.) What they most desperately needed was a third option -- an alternative to submission or rebellion, both of which they wisely understood to be acts of folly.

The third classic dilemma -- called classic because it appears over and over again in literature and drama -- is the tug-of-war between love for one's family and love for an alien. In Fiddler on the Roof the Jewish Tevye is able to tolerate his first daughter's marriage to a poor tailor. He is able to reconcile himself to his second daughter's marrying a radical student. But he casts away his third daughter for falling in love with a Russian Gentile. In his world, there can be no kinship between Gentile and Jew.

Let us return to what our Gospel text says about such family matters. The teaching of Matthew 12:46-50 may be summarized as follows: In family matters our loyalty as Christians belongs to the company of the faithful. That is our calling. We are never to suppose that we owe absolute loyalty to any social, racial, or religious group. Nor are we to claim independence from all groups on the grounds that we have some kind of divine right to be autonomous. Rather, we are to honor our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters in the faith. Surely this is what the writer of Hebrews intended when he wrote, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1).