Unnerving and Unsettling

Mark 3: 20-35 – The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time – for June 10, 2012

“Who are my mother and my brothers…” (Mark 3:33)

Can I write anything new about Jesus and his, or the Bible’s, family values? Others have shared insights—those I agree and disagree with—far better than me.

Under the best of circumstances, whatever I now ponder about parents or children, marriage or familial relationships, will also likely be a repetition of earlier attempts to struggle with Biblical values through my sermons or web ramblings. Under the worst of circumstances, I’ll unintentionally crib ideas from those “better than me” I’ve already mentioned.

And yet having nothing new to say won’t stop the inspiration and irritation that invariably surfaces when I read one of the Gospels most troubling passages. Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35 and Luke 8:19-21 present variations of Jesus’ mother and brothers arriving while he’s teaching . . . but they share a singular reaction. Upon hearing his family is nearby, the Nazarene asks the harsh question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” His jarring response was not his kin, not those who grew up with him, but instead those who have become his followers.

His own flesh and blood family . . . rejected? Mark’s Gospel was the most brutal about setting this scene. At Mark 3:19, after listing Jesus’ disciples and right before a “crowd came together” to listen to his preaching, the writer of the earliest Gospel claimed “he went home.” In other words, Mark depicted Jesus’ rejecting his kinfolk in the very place where his mother comforted him on her lap and his siblings played hide-and-go seek.

Family values?

In my lifetime, spanning the beginnings of the Cold War in the early 1950s to the current information age, family values have been trumpeted as what we have lost and what we must regain. According to some of my fellow Christians, divorce, gay marriage, single-parenting and women in the workplace (to name a few of our modern “ailments”) have eroded or discarded the Bible’s true values . . . the scriptural foundation of how a family should look and act and believe.

I disagree with that view. There’s much in the Bible, in the family traditions formed 2,000 and more years ago, I find reprehensible.

  • From Genesis to Revelation, the women of the Bible were property, with less value than a herd of goats or wheat field.
  • Arranged marriages were the norm.
  • Slaves were routinely part of the households of the rich.
  • Boys, especially the eldest, inherited a family’s land. Girls mostly received . . . well, nothing.

More famously, Abraham attempted to foist off his wife Sarah as his sister for fear of the Egyptians (Genesis 12:10ff); the very married King David pursued Bathsheba with equal doses of lust and stupidity; and the apostle Paul gave, in I Corinthians 7, some of the most muddled advice on marriage found anywhere in or out of scripture. Those three examples were easy to suggest. It wouldn’t be difficult to create a lengthier list of specific unnerving and unsettling anti-family values in scripture.

I was raised in a lovely, nurturing family. Mom worked hard—say about 168 hours a week—as a wife, mother and homemaker. Dad, for the most part his own “boss,” was not only successful enough for us to experience middle-class comfort, but also arrived home every night to be with his family. With a happy childhood and safe neighborhood and easy access to schools, my family resembled those found in Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best.

In Sunday School, on a thousand childhood Sundays, I joined other kids to sing Jesus Loves Me. From home to school to church, I thought everyone was like me and like my family.

When young, I didn’t know my 1950s world of Leave It To Beaver or the first century world of Jesus’ hometown (or any time period throughout history) included racial conflict, divorce, faithful believers who weren’t Christian, atheists, homosexuals, greedy rich, desperate poor, abandoned orphans, neglected widows, abused women, glass ceilings, double-standards and hypocrisy.

In my youth, everything appeared rosy and right and all I had to do was turn to any page of the Bible too see exactly how to live, how to learn values, or how to know the difference between a do and a don’t, a sin and salvation.

Am I jaded now? Has age addled me? Or am I more honest or less gullible or—also honestly—just plain wrong? Whatever the reasons, this I now believe:  quite a few pages within the Bible disrupt and dismantle the very values some claim it contains.

Who is my family? I am thankful for the messy, wonderful, nurturing family of my birth. How blessed I was to be raised by loving parents. But my sense of Jesus’ family values leads me to open my faith and my eyes wide enough to embrace those different from me.

I am grateful to have learned about faith from Muslims and Jews and more. Atheists have taught me about loving the neighbor far better than some of my fellow Christians. Heterosexual and homosexual parents I’ve personally married have been lousy parents. And, no matter what their orientation, some have been near perfect parents. I’ve had friends who loved me unconditionally and extended family that ignored me.

Who is my family? Jesus’ question is worth asking every day. Sharing a last name or DNA will not be the only answer.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Thanks, Larry. Sigh, I can so relate, even 11 years later. Well, except for personally marrying people 🙂

  2. I’m struck by the difference between Jesus and Paul’s “family values”. Jesus is the out and out ascetic down from the farm / small craft world of Galilee. Paul is a big city boy whose family may have been cloth and dye merchants in Tarsus, maybe even with a branch in Jerusalem. Paul frankly had several important, wealthy female associates, some of which were ranked higher than their husbands, and one of which (depending on how you read the Greek) was a female apostle.
    The Way may have been, in Paul’s world, a tide which lifted all boats, both male and female. Paul even went so far as to push for freeing a slave here and there (Philemon).
    As far as some ideal notion of family values, whether they be the Cleavers or the Nelsons, I believe that is a chimera. Family values are what works nere and now, and here and now is set up so that a family literally needs two incomes. Companies simply assume that if you are married, your spouse works and contributes a sizeable amount to the family coffers. The stay at home homemaker paradigm is dead. And if the earner is in that fabled 1%, the spouse hires a cook, a gardener, and a housecleaner, and goes out to spend time playing bridge, working on committees, and various local charities. Who knows, she may even work in a church soup kitchen. Stranger things have happened.
    Regarding that famous synoptic “family” remark from Jesus, I am satisfied that the intention of his biographers was not to reflect that blood relations were worthless, but that the intentional relation of love and community was more important. But you never know. Maybe Jesus really didn’t get along with his blood relatives. My father, for example threatened to disown me if I burnt my draft card. That was kind of an empty gesture, because I was medically exempt (I would not be called up until the Viet Min reached Denver.) But that was an example of how non-blood ties can seriously trump blood relations.
    In the end, I think there are no “special” ethical rules for family relations, because if a family does not work, there is no moral blame to dissolving the relationship. Of course, Larry, you didn’t mention that Jesus was so much against divorce, that he said it was not worth getting married in the first place, to avoid that possibility.


    1. Bruce…thanks for the response. You’re right, I didn’t mention divorce. Or, a whole lot of other ancient and modern complexities that make “family” values a whole lot more gray and than black & white. Years ago I did a sermon that was basically me memorizing and preaching Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. After, I received an angry note from someone irked by “my” comments regarding divorce (see Matthew 5:31-32). Whew. They didn’t like “my” words and didn’t care for my explanation that it was a direct quote from the Bible. Using the Bible as the benchmark for family values pleases no one and can upset everyone.

  3. It makes one wonder in what way people believe they understand the Bible, in contrast to what the Bible really says… Of course, that notion, “What the Bible really says…” is loaded, but I suspect one could construct a kind of Turing Test which repeated statements from the Bible, and one responded “Yes” or “Now” to whether that was in the Bible or not. Add a few things that are actually NOT in the Bible, from “Poor Richard’s Almanac” such as “God Helps Those who Help Themselves”. Sorry folks, not in there!

    1. Now Bruce, was that a Freudian slip, or were you just not paying attention to what you were writing when you said “Yes” or “Now”. Please try to stay awake when you are typing on serious matters.

  4. I will be borrowing some of these thoughts for next Sunday’s sermon Larry.
    THANKS (of course I’ll give you credit if I use your actual words)

  5. I found much to say “amen” to and plenty to think about – thank you, whether or not I find fodder for Sunday’s message. I’ve often wondered at the idealistic view that because something is “in the Bible” it provides a blue print to live by for all eternity – for myself, God gave us the ability to work out the “how” of life and relationships based on the love filled life-giving and mutually accountable relationship of the 3-in-1 God. If only we could get out of our own ego’s grip!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Ann. Every day, I struggle to get out of my “ego’s grip.” I suspect I’m not alone . . .

      I’m grateful you took the time to find and read my words!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.