Grace Presbyterian Church
June 6, 2021, Pentecost 2B
Family Values (According to Jesus)
Oh, hello, Mark. Nice to see you again. It’s been a while.
While this year of the Revised Common Lectionary is nominally devoted to working through the story of Jesus as recorded in that gospel, it’s been a while since we heard a whole lot out of this, most likely the earliest gospel written. One could argue that’s at least partly the author’s fault; the season of Easter, for example, doesn’t really include much of Mark (besides possibly Easter Sunday itself) because this gospel doesn’t have much Easter-ish stuff to offer beyond that blink-and-you-miss-it moment with the women at the empty tomb in Mark 16:1-8. Before that, in the season of Lent, aside from Mark’s account of Jesus’s temptation and of the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem are separated by a bunch of stuff from the gospel of John. So yeah, you could be forgiven for having forgotten about this brief gospel and its supposed place of prominence in this year’s lectionary cycle.
I have to hand it to the lectionary folk, though; this is a heck of a scripture to bring this gospel back into focus.
Since it’s been a while, and since this year’s lectionary cycle didn’t leave a lot of room during the Epiphany season, it’s probably best to recap what’s happened so far in this gospel (which, remember, has no nativity story at all): Jesus appears to be baptized by John in the wilderness; Jesus is tempted, though there’s precious little said about in this gospel; he heads back north to Galilee to pick up his ministry there, calling his first disciples along the way; and he performs a lot of healings and casting out of unclean spirits. He starts up a preaching tour, which seems to get interrupted with more healings. Along the way various religious authorities begin to take offense at his work and his “speaking with authority,” though the common folk keep turning out in droves. More disciples get called, Jesus dines with some of the “undesirables” of society, and the religious authorities start trying to trap him in some kind of error or (better yet) blasphemy, which doesn’t work. Finally, here in chapter 3, Jesus does a healing in a synagogue, which prompts those religious authorities to seek to “destroy” him. The crowds only get bigger, unclean spirits keep cowering before him, and he finally sets the group of twelve disciples in place from among his followers. That brings us to the homecoming recorded here, set against a backdrop of both great popular acclaim and fierce authoritarian threat.
For the first time in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s family shows up. Remember, there is no nativity account in this gospel, so we have no names for these folks who show up; at first they’re just “his family” in verse 21. By verse 31 they’re named slightly more specifically as “his mother and his brothers.”
This family appearance is the bread, so to speak, in what biblical scholars sometimes call a “Markan sandwich.” This writer is fond of a rhetorical device in which two stories are told together, with one story split up and placed on either side of the other, as the slices of bread are placed on bottom and top of whatever you take in your sandwich. The tendency in such “sandwich” accounts is to focus on the stuff in the middle – the “meat” of the sandwich – with the “bread” getting less attention.
And it would be very easy to do here, because the middle of this sandwich is pretty juicy. The religious authorities come after Jesus, this time literally accusing him of being “in league with the devil” in order to cast out demons. Jesus bats down that charge as firmly as basketballs are getting swatted out of the air during the ongoing NBA playoffs, with the pithy observation that if Beelzebul is divided against himself, he’s not going to last much longer. Jesus hints at the one who really can subdue a strong foe such as Beelzebul (spoiler alert: it’s Jesus himself, who has already faced down the devil and cast out a bunch of unclean spirits), and then suggests, in a passage that needs a sermon all its own, that some folks are getting so willing to believe lies about him that they’re trending towards blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which is a hole you can’t get out of. When one has so embraced lies that one can’t even see the truth anymore, how can one be restored to right relation to Jesus and one’s neighbors?
That’s meaty stuff indeed, and one could make an old-fashioned forty-five-minute stemwinder of a sermon out of that. But the bread of this Markan sandwich shouldn’t be ignored even though – or perhaps especially because – it might make us even more uncomfortable than the stuff in the middle.
Back to Jesus’s family. It’s quite likely that they have shown up here in what we can only guess is Jesus’s first time back in his hometown region since his baptism, or as we might put it in vernacular form, “when he went off after that crazy wilderness preacher John.” And he apparently hasn’t even stopped in for a visit. What’s worse – and you know how this always seems to be the worst offense you can commit in the eyes of family – he’s causing a scene. As verse 21 puts it, they are saying “he has gone out of his mind.”
Therefore they have come to “restrain” him. Don’t overlook this word; it’s the same word used when the authorities come to arrest Jesus later in this gospel (ch. 14), as well as when John the Baptist is arrested (ch. 6) They’re not there to play nice.
Jumping down to verse 31 (the other slice of “bread” in this sandwich), the attention shifts back to the family, now specified as his mother and brothers, who are “standing outside,” and who “sent to him and called him.” One might guess that sounded something like “Jesus! You get yourself out here RIGHT NOW!”
Others in the crowd, those gathered closer to Jesus pass this news along to him. Jesus’s response is, shall we say, not exactly what you’d expect from a dutiful son.
Who are my mother and my brothers?
Here are my mother and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.
One thing that emphatically must be named here is that there are many, many people in the world for whom this is good news. For those who simply cannot be reconciled to their biological families for whatever reason – physical or sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, rejection for sexual orientation or religious disagreement or for just “being a failure,” or even the politicized social polarization of our society right now – this is a definition of family in which there is hope, opportunity, and even welcome.
For the “family values” crowd, not so much. Jesus isn’t anti-family, but family ties or obligations cannot be allowed to interfere with the business of “doing the will of God” as invoked in verse 35.
But what, exactly, constitutes “doing the will of God?”
There are lots of places in scripture where one could get an idea of what “doing the will of God” looks like. One might look at the parable of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25, or maybe the Beatitudes, for example. From the epistles one might think of the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5, or Paul’s list of things to think on in Philippians 4. But in this passage, among those whom Jesus indicates, what is it that marks them as “doing the will of God”?
It really seems like the answer is that they are there.
They are with Jesus. They are listening to what Jesus is teaching. They are there despite the accusations of the religious authorities. They are there even despite his own family’s claims that he’s gone crazy. They have come to him, they have followed him, and they are there.
In the end, any definition of “doing the will of God” has to start there, with the simple act of following Jesus. For us now, centuries removed from Jesus’s walking on the earth, “being there” cannot be separated from responding to the leading of the Holy Spirit and following in what the Spirit is doing. And doing that right can be just about as uncomfortable as dealing with out-of-his-mind Jesus was for his family. That Spirit leads to uncomfortable places, being called to do challenging things or taking up difficult journeys that might well persuade others that we’re out of our minds. It can lead to leaving behind all that’s comfortable and familiar and starting from what looks like nothing. It doesn’t allow for sitting back and assuming everything will go as planned, or as we’ve decided it should go. And sometimes it even means taking care of one’s family.
But it starts with following, being present, listening. That’s the first answer to what it means to do God’s will. And that is the call of this very uncomfortable, not at all family-values-friendly moment in scripture.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #612, We Praise You, O God; #771, What Is the World Like