While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to 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.” (Matt 12:46-50)
We live in a culture which views family obligations loosely. It’s normal for children to leave their parents’ home after high school and venture out on their own. In fact, the prospect of a child never leaving the home is frightening for many of us. We want our children to be independent; it’s a mark of accomplishment in our culture, to get out from beneath your parents’ roof and fend for yourself. When our children become independent of us, it’s a mark of honor as parents, that we’ve done a good job in equipping our children to fend for themselves. In our culture, people find their identity in accomplishments.
In Jesus’ culture it’s the opposite. The prospect of a child leaving the home was frightening for a parent. Parents expected their children to live nearby, if not under their roof, and to join them in the family business, if at all possible. Family ties were very close, and were valued above any kind of independence or individualism. People found their identity in relationships.
It’s for this reason that Jesus’ words in Matt 12:46-50 are shocking. He appears to disregard, and therefore disrespect, the strongest bond in his culture. It’s no wonder that his teachings have at times been appropriated for revolution and rebellion against social tradition. But this is missing the point. While it’s true that Jesus intended to shock the people who were listening, his goal isn’t social upheaval for its own sake. Jesus wanted them to open their eyes and see something that they were blind to. Those who follow him are no longer identified by their biological connections or mere physical life.
The same is relevant to us, but not to get us to accept that we’re not defined by our family relationships. We don’t identify ourselves that way, for the most part. We find our identities in the things we do—our studies, our employment, and our possessions. What Jesus is telling us is that, if we walk the same path he did, we find our identity in him. What becomes important about us is not who our earthly parents are, or what earthly accomplishments we have as individuals, but that we have been accepted into the family of God. That happens because we have received the very life of God—spiritual life—through Jesus Christ. We receive biological life from our parents, but that isn’t what defines us. What defines us is the life we receive through Him. It is His life. In receiving his life, we have a new family—new brothers and sisters, and a heavenly Father.
The author of Hebrews says, “Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters” (Heb. 2:11). It’s not a call to rebellion, except to the extent that our earthly families stand in the way of this new life. We are not defined by the color of our skin, the country we live in, or our ethnic heritage. We are defined by the new, spiritual life we have through Jesus Christ. It’s why Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:16 that he recognizes no man according to the flesh. It’s why there are no social or gender distinctions in Christ (Gal. 3:28). It’s why we are described as being born of God and not by blood, or by the will of man (John 1:13). Relationships based on mere biological life don’t define us. What matters is that we are new creations in Christ.
If we experience rejection by our biological families for our faith, as did many in Jesus’ time, this is why we find a new community among brothers and sisters. The same goes for rejection by co-workers, or our friends, or the other kinds of relationships that socially define us. It’s also the way we find meaning when our individual accomplishments fall short and we consider ourselves failures. We have a new family. We have a brother in the one who is the author of our salvation. We have a Father in heaven who loves us more than we can comprehend. We have a destiny, purpose, and value that is found in Him.