Matthew 12: 46-50 Redefining Community

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)

Matthew 12: 46-50

Parallel Mark 3: 31-35; Luke 8: 19-21

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him.47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” 48 But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Central to one’s understanding of identity throughout the ancient world was the family and not merely the nuclear family of father and mother, brothers and sisters. There is a reason that one of the ten commandments is dedicated to honoring the familial bonds and relationships and why Matthew spends seventeen verses at the beginning of the gospel narrating the genealogy of Jesus. Yet, within Judaism, there is always a higher calling to follow God than one’s family. This is particularly highlighted in the Abraham narrative which begins with Abram (later renamed Abraham) being separated from his family:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. Genesis 12: 1-2

Even the bond between father and the long-awaited son Isaac is to be secondary to Abraham’s commitment to the LORD his God.

He (God) said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22: 2

Throughout Matthew’s gospel we have seen Jesus insisting that following him is more central than one’s commitment to family. In fact the arrival of Jesus may bring conflict within those relationships: a disciple is to follow Jesus rather than burying his father (8: 18-22), family members may betray other family members over conflicting views of Jesus (10: 21-22) and the presence of Jesus will create strife within families but the followers of Jesus are to love Jesus more than familial relationships. (10: 35-37) The people hearing Matthew’s gospel may understand these broken familial relationships at a personal level, but here they also hear Jesus elevating them above the level of his own earthly family. If they have given up their family, the community of those gathered around Jesus has become their new brothers and sisters.

Others will attempt to define Jesus from his family relations:

“Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” Matthew 13: 55-56

And while the community of family is important for Matthew it cannot be central, only Jesus can occupy that position. Jesus is not opposed to families, many of his miracles are requested by family members and one of his conflicts with the Pharisees and scribes will center around keeping the commandment to honor father and mother (Matthew 15: 1-20). Yet, Jesus also occupies a place that previously only the God of Israel could occupy. He is one who can ask those who follow him to be willing to leave family behind so that they can be blessing to the nations.  After the rich young man has gone away grieving his unwillingness to give up his possessions to follow Jesus, Peter asks: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” and Jesus’ answer in addition to their positions judging Israel includes “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundred-fold, and will inherit eternal life” (19: 29)

Many Christians in Matthew’s time and beyond have experienced broken families and have needed the community of disciples to be mother and brothers and sisters. Here Jesus also embraces this community of disciples above those family relationships which cared for him. Jesus is creating a new family, a new Israel and like God’s call to Abram, there are times where Jesus’ call means leaving previously central relationships behind, but it also involves the formation of a new family network to support and care for one another.

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