Dismantling and Re-framing Family

A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!”
Mark 3:32-34

Spend any time at all in communities challenged by poverty and violence, and you will encounter people who have spent formative stages of life without the blessing of family. Such hardships may be part of your own story, and you know the reality all too well.

For abandoned people – who may be found in any corner of society – the words of Jesus in Mark 3 can provide genuine comfort and hope. Jesus re-frames and re-constitutes “family” in such a way that it includes those formerly excluded. It follows a pattern deeply embedded in the gospel story: Jesus sets a table for all, and gives preferred seating to the most unexpected guests.

If that were all, it would be plenty. But there is more to Jesus’s teachings and actions here. Much more – a thundering earthquake in fact, shaking the foundations of humanity to the core and re-ordering all. The Teacher is not simply re-arranging the chairs for a few overlooked guests. If so, at most there might be murmurs of protest among regular folks and guardians of the social order. Instead we find this comforting passage situated amid near-chaos.

“The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.'” (3:20-21)

Whoa! It’s only chapter 3, Jesus is just getting warmed up, and things have gone from zero to redlined in a flash. “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.'”

It’s a rhetorical trap, of the sort Jesus is often portrayed deftly evading. Fearing his popularity as a healer-exorcist, they tag him with the rap that he’s actually using the Satanic power of the “Ruler of the House” (Beelzebul in contemporary notions of the supernatural) for his liberating work.

Instead of evading, Jesus pivots directly into the accusation. “If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come” (3:26). He goes on to give a vivid image of the ruler of a house burglarized, bound, and plundered.

The reason Jesus is not content to evade the accusation is that in itself it illustrates the very nature of the demonic at work in humanity. At its very essence, the demonic dynamic is to divide and expel. It is the essence of the scapegoat mechanism – the relentless impulse to accuse and cast out. It is the impulse that will by the end of Mark’s gospel have Jesus murdered.

Of all blasphemies, Jesus teaches, there is none so fundamental as this: to identify the accusing, dividing, and expelling energy as the energy of God’s spirit. Yet that is exactly what these human accusers are doing, because they have imagined a religious and social order around exactly such catastrophic energy.

It is a deception that has permeated every strand of human social fabric – down into the weave of family life itself. Families have been understood as closed systems that must maintain clear demarcations between insiders and outsiders. The family name must be honored and preserved, with the dishonorable cast away. But here is a rabbi who casts out and casts forth in a way that no one has seen! Unlike with other healers and exorcists, the “castings out” of Jesus are for the liberation of all, not division and expulsion.

Such plundering and ransacking of the self-oppressed household of humanity – for breathtaking liberation and inclusion of all – is the work of God in Christ, but would remain incomprehensible as an abstraction. Mercifully and most powerfully, Jesus simply shows. “Looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!'” (3:34). That’s it. To reinforce the simplicity, Jesus says they are the ones who “do the will of God,” which he has shown to be nothing more or less than living into the liberating delight of the One who welcomes and gathers all.

The good news is not merely that Jesus makes more space in a human family that has forgotten its hospitality. Jesus announces another way of humanity; a reframing and reconstitution of family itself. It is a blessing of family we all may share, as we embrace the true liberation the Spirit of Christ brings.

Peace,
Scott Dewey
Street Psalms

Read more about Scott’s experience creating family with Romanian orphans here.