Listen to the gospel writers: Jesus and his family

Wed, 22/03/2017 - 11:48 -- James Oakley

I often tell people that we need to listen to the gospel writers whenever we read the gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke or John are teaching us something by recording the things they do. We need to let them do that. The words Jesus spoke within the gospels were spoken to other characters in the narrative, not to us directly. Our job is not to apply those words to us, but to ask what the gospel writer is wishing to communicate by recording those words in the setting they occur in.

I've written on this before: The words in red were not spoken to you.

One thing this means is that the same event may be recorded in more than one gospel, but we may be meant to learn different things. Just because Matthew and Mark both record something, it need not follow that they're saying the same thing by doing so.

I came across a helpful example of this with the visit of Jesus' mother and his brothers in Matthew and in Mark.


Here's Mark first. It's a classic Markan "sandwich", where he starts one story off, pauses to tell you another, and then returns to finish off the first story. It's a storytelling device he uses a lot, and most of the instances of this in other gospels are where the other authors probably used Mark as a source. He's wanting us to see the two stories as related.

First, comes Mark 3:20-21:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’

Mark then recounts how the teachers of the law dismissed Jesus' exorcisms as being done by the power of Satan. Then we get Mark 3:31-35

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting round him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’

‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’

His immediate family have dismissed him as insane, which amounts to the same thing as calling Jesus demonic. It has echoes of C S Lewis in Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

The unbelief of Jesus' family is thus in the foreground. They are being used as a foil: We are not to be like them.

Mark is the gospel I am most familiar with.


So, when it came to preaching on Matthew 12:46-50, the temptation is to import Mark's treatment of this into Matthew. It's very tempting to tell people that the reason Jesus family came to speak to him was because they were worried for his well-being and stress levels, and wanted to take him home quietly for a rest before he made a fool of himself.

The trouble is, nothing in Matthew 12 leads us to say any of that. The family first pop up in verse 46, where they simply wish to speak to him. There's nothing there about insanity at all.

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.’

His family are a contrast. But the contrast works differently from in Mark. In Mark, the contrast is between two response to Jesus: The family dismissed him as mad, whereas his disciples were sat learning from him humbly.

In Matthew, the contrast is between two results. Matthew does not contrast standing and sitting (as Mark does), but two different types of family. His natural family is "outside", whereas the others are disciples (picking up, I think, Matthew 11:29 - "take my yoke upon you, and be discipled by me"), and are doing "the will of my Father in heaven" (picking up, I'm certain, Matthew 7:21, and therefore drawing associations with the two ways / roads / trees that sum up the Sermon on the Mount). This group are his true family.

So Matthew's point is very different: By being his true disciples, we can become members of his truest family. This is the highest privilege of all, and his natural, biological family are a foil for that. Matthew is not focussing on Jesus' family's response to Jesus, since that response is not actually mentioned, but on the fact that true disciples have greater access to Jesus and greater privilege even than his earthly family.

If we'd imported Mark's point into Matthew, not only would we be saying things that Matthew doesn't say, but we'd have missed the gold that is there.

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