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The Closest Relationships
In February of this year the Economist magazine gave us the following statistics.
7% of the entire UK population had attended a private school. But if you were to look just at MPs then you'd find that that percentage rose to 33%.
Similarly less than 1% of Britons have gone to Oxford or Cambridge, but 1 in 5 of the new parliamentary candidates have been educated at one or other of these universities.
If you want to get on in politics it certainly seems that having a certain type of background is, to say the least, no hindrance.
When a person is born into a wealthy family we might say that he/she had been born with a silver spoon in the mouth. And we use the term "silver spoon" to mean wealth and in particular "inherited wealth".
We are very used to this sort of thing – so often a person's "getting on" in the world depends not just on what you know but who you know.
When we see pictures of Prince George we might all agree that he looks like a very pleasant little toddler but we also know we're being shown those pictures because of the family to which he belongs. Similarly we don't believe that the 11 million results in a google search for the name Brooklyn Beckham are given to us because of the personal merits of this particular teenager – we suspect it has much more to do with the fame of his footballing-father.
There is nothing really new about all this. Our dictionaries include words that explain how it works out too:
• Nepotism is the practice of favouring one's relatives or friends, especially in making official appointments.
• Cronyism is similar it means the appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority, without proper regard to their qualifications.
When we come to religion it is possible for us to carry over similar views and to think that our family connections are really very important. Some of us may be tempted to think that were OK religiously speaking if we belong to a certain type of family (or any other special type of group for that matter).
As we continue our studies in Luke's gospel we're going to take a look at what Jesus considered to be important in the life of a would-be follower.
The Family Shows Up
Jesus had been travelling through the towns and villages of Galilee preaching and teaching. He had stirred up a great deal of interest and curiosity as he did this but not all the reactions towards him were positive. Very early on in fact the Pharisees and the Scribes were hostile and even suggesting that Jesus was operating in cahoots with Satan.
Perhaps that was the reason the family showed up. Perhaps the family was getting a bit anxious about the eldest son and wanted to get him away for a while so that things might calm down a bit.
We don't know exactly why the family turned up but their arrival was significant after all Matthew, Mark and Luke each thought it worthy noting it down for us to read. They each tell us how Jesus' mother along with his brothers turned up while he was teaching and they each tell us that they couldn't get through to him because of the crowds that were swarming around him.
Before we go any further we should stop for a moment and note that Jesus knew what family life was all about. His conception had been exceptional but thereafter his experience of human life was not so very unusual. His legal father, Joseph, is never mentioned outside of the birth narratives and this could well suggest that by this time he was no longer alive. But his mother was still alive and he had brothers and sisters too. These were Joseph and Mary's children who were conceived naturally after Mary had given birth to her first born son, Jesus. Elsewhere in the gospels we are told the names of some of his brothers. So Jesus knew what it was like to have brothers and sisters and to enjoy normal family relationships with their ups and downs. When Jesus came to earth he didn't somehow float through life in an unreal way but he lived a genuine human life. He became like us in every way yet without sin (Heb.4:15).
The Apostle John, for his part, tells us that Jesus' brothers didn't believed in him” (Jn.7:5). They'd lived with Jesus for many years but still did not really know him. Not one of Jesus’ brothers is mentioned as a disciple during his pre-crucifixion ministry – later all that would change and, after Jesus' resurrection and ascension, we find them in the upper room worshiping him as God (Acts 1:14). But for the moment the coming of his family did not signal a great expression of faith.
Surely that should be of help to those of us who have family members who don't yet believe in Jesus. Jesus himself had family members who took ever such a long time to come to faith – just being in close proximity to him all those years hadn't been enough for them. It sounds incredible doesn't it? What an enormous privilege to have grown up in a family where the older brother was the sinless Son of God and yet for years that privilege went unrecognised.
Well, let's return to the matter at hand. The family group has arrived but they can't get to Jesus on account of the crowds.
What can they do?
Surely, if they can get a message sent through to him as soon as he hears that his family is outside then he'll stop and come out to speak with them.
So they sent a message through so that Jesus might know they were there and that they wanted to see him and speak to him.
I wonder if think there is any significance in the fact that Matthew in his account tells that they wanted to speak to Jesus rather than listen to him. Could this be a further indication that faith was not yet real and vibrant in the family group? Instead of wanting to learn from him did they have their own agenda to which they wanted to make him conform? Are you yet ready to submit to his ways or are you trying to manipulate him into yours?
In any case the message was sent and I wonder just how it was. Was word passed from one person to the next with the news that Jesus' family was outside and that they wanted to speak to him? If it was then the family's presence would soon be widely known amongst the crowd and the expectation would be that Jesus would likely quickly respond to his family's request. After all family ties were very strong then as indeed they still are today in so many parts of the world our own included. Well when the message did finally get through to Jesus it was shared with him openly and not as some whispered secret.
How will Jesus react? What will he say? Are family ties and family loyalties always going to trump everything else? What really is important when it comes to knowing Jesus?
Jesus and his Spiritual Family
When Jesus was told that his mother and brothers were standing outside waiting to see him he was being told that those who were closest to him were there, those who naturally had the greatest claim upon him were there.
I imagine that we all have at least some understanding of family relationships and as we read this account we quite naturally expect Jesus to respond favourably upon such an understandable request. It was such a reasonable thing for him to do. After all didn't the Law of Moses require respect for mother and father and weren't families and family values generally promoted in God's law?
Jesus response comes as something of a surprise because he took advantage of the arrival of his natural family and turned it into an important teaching occasion.
Did the crowd assume that natural family ties were the important thing? Did his own family members think that these ties automatically gave them a certain pull over him? Well all must be put straight – that is not the most important thing at all! There was something far more important than that indeed the crucial matter had nothing whatsoever to do with normal human bonds of affection.
Luke gives the briefest of the three accounts and he simply records the words that Jesus gave in answer to the request that he go and meet his flesh and blood family. He said for all to hear:
v.21 “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
How are we to understand this?
Well Jesus is using language figuratively and he is doing so in order to make a serious point. It is that point we must understand and we must be careful not to make Jesus say something he never intended to say.
If we were to take Jesus' words literally we might find ourselves ending up drawing some very inappropriate conclusions. We are not, for example, to interpret Jesus as denying the reality of normal family ties. When we look at the caring attitude Jesus displayed towards his own mother when he hung dying upon the cross we must conclude that Jesus was in no way repudiating normal human family relationships and responsibilities. However normal human family relationships must never be allowed to replace loyalty to himself – Jesus demands the first loyalty of all of his followers.
With a literal understanding of the terms mother and brothers here our attention is directed towards upon some of the closest human relationships possible. But Jesus is not teaching about ordinary human families any more. The wider context of his teaching is that he is teaching about the Kingdom of God and so he teaches now that his closest spiritual relationships are reserved, not for those who are physically related to him but are opened up to those who hear the word of God and who put it into practice.
A Further Example
A few chapters later on in this gospel Luke tells us about another little incident which teaches a similar lesson to the one which we've been seeing here. This is it:
Lk.11:27-28 "As (Jesus) said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”"
How we need to learn to focus upon what is really important and not allow ourselves to get sidetracked into putting the emphasis where we shouldn't be putting it.
Yes, the words this woman cried out were true: Mary had been greatly honoured and given a terrific privilege in bringing Jesus into the world and in caring for him as he grew up but all that would remain nothing more than academic if not accompanied by faith and trust. For others looking on it could also be a fruitless exercise if all they did was to reflect on Mary's blessedness without availing themselves of the blessings offered so freely to them as Jesus preached and proclaimed the word of God.
Some Implications of this Teaching
If a close spiritual relationship with Jesus is dependent not upon flesh and blood family ties but upon our attitude and response to the word of God that Jesus proclaimed several things follow:
The particular family to which I belong has no direct bearing upon my relationship with Jesus.
This means that my family background:
a) neither makes me a Christian nor
b) prevents me becoming a Christian
Don't make the mistake of thinking that because you belong to a family where others believe in Jesus means that you are automatically safe yourself. Just because your parents are Christian doesn't mean that you are. Nor does the fact that you are a Christian guarantee automatically that your children are safe. Each person must hear and respond to the word of God in an individual and personal way.
The principle might be legitimately be extended to cover cultures and countries. The UK has a long history in which Christianity has played an important role so much so that people have often referred to Britain as a Christian country. But it is not sufficient to be a member of the UK: to be right with Jesus it is essential for us to hear and to heed God's word.
On the other hand just because your nobody in your family ever believed before you or believed in another religion this is no impediment to you becoming intimately related to Jesus Christ. Your family background may have been polite and respectable or it may have been full of the worst black sheep imaginable – but in neither case are you to be excluded from intimacy with Jesus if only you will hear and heed!
If family or national background are not determinant for me but my response to hearing the Word of God then:
i. I must take great care how I hear and
ii. make every effort to understand and
iii. when I've heard and understood I must act
Three gospel writers wrote about the coming of Jesus' family recording the message they sent that they wanted to see him and talk to him but none of them recorded what Jesus did. None of them tell us whether he went out and spoke to them or not.
The reason really is pretty obvious – it is not important for us to know! The important thing is for us to listen to the message and to put it into practice and to put our faith and trust in this wonderful man Jesus.
Jesus' brothers who didn't believe at this particular stage of their lives would believe in due course. Mary, Jesus' mother treasured up all kinds of details about her son as she too exercised faith in him as her own Saviour.
And what about you? Don't rely upon anything else other than a personal faith in Jesus Christ.