Who are my brothers?


Scripture: Mark 3: 28-37; Memorial Nigel Bunce

Who are my brothers?  That’s the question that this week’s Scripture makes us examine.  And, do we have an side track to Jesus just because we attend church every week?  Probably not.  Jesus preached “radical equality”. This tells us that the Kingdom of God is different from the hierarchies of this world.

Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Did he disobey the commandment to honour his parents. or was it an instance of radical equality — even his family did not have special access to him? And what does this say about our relationship with our Indigenous peoples? Are they brothers and sisters?

But first, Memorial Sunday

Today we remember the people in our beautiful cemetery. They have left this world. Some of them were close friends and relatives of parishioners and friends here today. But beneath the ancient head-stones lie people who were in a sense the forebears of us all.

That’s true, whether or not they were our biological ancestors. Because, their faith led them to found this parish, to build this church, and to sustain both its faith and its fabric for more than 160 years.

But, today’s memorial service for everyone

That’s because, we all have loved ones who left this life before us. Some died recently, others, longer ago. In many cases, their earthly remains lie in other cemeteries, some nearby, others far away.

This morning, we take the opportunity to remember them. We thank them once more for the joys and love they gave us while they were with us. And, we pray that their souls are resting at peace with their Creator. Just as we hope that ours will also be when the time comes.

But as I thought about the people who have gone before me in this life, I marvelled at all the accidents of life that made it possible for each of us to exist. All the chance meetings that led parents, grandparents and those further back in time to meet and to marry. And then, the pure chance that one particular act of mating – of love – led to our births. It is a wonder to me.

Now, back to today’s Scripture

At first glance, this passage from Mark can leave us scratching our heads. Why was Jesus so dismissive – rude even – to his family members, when he asked “Who are my brothers, etc? Had he forgotten the Fifth Commandment – honour your father and mother? Are we seeing a dysfunctional family?

Jesus had become a rock-star preacher and healer in Galilee. His ministry was incredibly popular. Mark’s Gospel reports that he didn’t even have time to eat. Jesus had already had run-ins with the Pharisees. They had complained that he did not uphold the ban on Sabbath work.

Who are my brothers? the context of today’s passage

Right before today’s passage, Jesus argued with some scribes. Scribes were the academic and legal interpreters of the Law of Moses. They had come from Jerusalem, about 70 miles away. I assume they came to check up on Jesus.

They were arguing inside some building. Jesus’ family members were outside. They called to Jesus to come out to them. Jesus replied in what seems a very rude way, “Who are my mother and who are my brothers and sisters?” Looking around, he said, “These people with me are my brothers and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is family to me.”

To be fair, we all have times when we have to ask – or even tell – someone important to wait. “I can’t come right now; I’m changing the baby’s diaper.” You can’t just leave an undiapered baby with a dirty backside on the bathroom vanity, even if it’s the Prime Minister at the door.

Perhaps the issue was about when to break with tradition

So, perhaps what Jesus meant was that he needed to finish the conversation he was having with the scribes. Or, perhaps the reason was that sometimes you need to set aside the commandment about honouring your parents. Just as he set aside the commandment about Sabbath rules when he healed on the Sabbath.

As I said last week, Jesus was prepared to set aside the rules – traditions – when necessary. The Commandments were made for us, not the other way round. Even so, it doesn’t seem likely that the scribes could be the brothers and sisters that Jesus referred to when his family came calling.

Radical equality trumps “Who are my brothers?”

Yet there is a way to make sense of the apparent rudeness of Jesus towards his biological family. Because, for Jesus, there was no nepotism. His biological family had no special access or favoured position. Biblical scholars call this Jesus’ sense of “radical equality”.

The opposite of radical equality is hierarchy. To minimize the sense of hierarchy, at St. George’s, we try to have many voices participate in our weekly worship. It is also why I do not want to be called ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend Nigel’

You see, the Kingdom of God is not like political organizations. Where personal connections and bribes get you to the centre of power. Instead, we recall that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a little donkey, not a chariot. He washed his disciples’ feet, even when they protested.

Maybe the scribes really were Jesus’ brothers

So maybe even those scribes with whom Jesus had been arguing were his brothers and sisters after all. Maybe too, Jesus didn’t have a dysfunctional relationship with his biological family.

‘Radical equality’ is exactly what attracted the earliest converts to Christianity. We recall what Paul wrote to the church he had founded in Galatia (part of modern Turkey). Its members should be thought of as neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, freeborn person or slave.

Paul was writing a pastoral letter to the Galatian church. Not an essay about doctrine. I assume that Paul wanted to correct the cause of conflict about hierarchy. People back then, I’m sure, had just as much trouble in setting aside their hierarchies and prejudices as we do today. .

Paul recognized that in any society, such as our parish, different people will take different roles because they have different gifts. But he was clear. Every one of us has value. He used the metaphor of the body. All its parts are needed to make the body function properly.

Do we have a special (meaning hierarchical) relationship to Jesus?

All this raises the question, “What is our own relationship to Jesus?” Are we part of Jesus’s inner circle because we attend church each week and claim to be disciples? On reflection, we have to answer that we are probably not special. Any more than Jesus’s family were special on that occasion two thousand years ago.  It all depends on what you mean when you ask, “Who is my brother?”