There are some questions that I really dread. One of these is a question that often comes up when meeting new people. It all starts with the usual pleasantries of your name and where you’re from, usually followed by what you do. All of these are fine, but sooner or later comes the question, ‘So, do you have a family?’ I then have to make a quick decision about the various ways I could answer.
I could talk about my biological family – I have a mum, a dad, a brother, some uncles and aunts and cousins. I could talk about my church family – I have brothers and sisters and spiritual fathers and mothers. But I know that these aren’t actually the sorts of family they’re asking about. What they really mean is, ‘Are you married, and have you got children?’ And judging from people’s reactions, the expected answer seems to be ‘Yes’. Talking about my biological family or church family, or just giving a simple ‘No’, tends to lead to a fair measure of awkwardness (often accompanied by at least a hint of pity).
He shows us that having our own nuclear family – a spouse and children – isn’t necessary for a fulfilled life.
But when this happens, I take comfort by thinking that it is probably an experience I share with Jesus. Even more than we do, Jesus lived in a culture where men were expected to be married and to be fathers. He shows us that having our own nuclear family – a spouse and children – isn’t necessary for a fulfilled life. And actually, when it comes to nuclear and biological family, Jesus had some pretty radical things to say.
Family put in its place
I love stories where Jesus doesn’t do what you expect him to, and this is one of the best. Jesus’ family were becoming concerned about his increasing popularity. They came to see him, but there was such a crowd they couldn’t reach him. Their only option was to send a message through the crowd (Mark 3:31-32).
The message comes to Jesus, and we instinctively think, ‘Obviously, Jesus will go and see them and check they’re ok. He’s the good guy.’ But, to our surprise, he doesn’t. He simply looks at those around him and says, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? … Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God he is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mark 3:33-35).
Jesus is reshaping how we think about family. He came to form a new family of those who follow him and are adopted as God’s children. As sons and daughters of God, we become family together. And this family, Jesus demonstrates, is of prime importance for us.
He came to form a new family of those who follow him and are adopted as God’s children.
This doesn’t mean we should all just completely reject our biological or nuclear families – Jesus himself didn’t do this; he was still caring for his mother even as he was dying (John 19:26-27 – but it means that if we’re a follower of Jesus, we’re part of another family; we have new family allegiances, and it may even suggest that church family should take preference over nuclear family.
In past decades, many Christian teenagers have been promised that if they resist the temptation to have sex before they are married, God will bless them with the ideal family unit (and lots of sex). The problem with this promise is, it’s not actually in the Bible. But Jesus has made an important promise about family.
One day, Peter pointed out to Jesus that he and the other disciples had left behind a lot to become his followers (Mark 10:28). In response, Jesus promises that he will more than make up for any losses we experience to follow him.
‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life’ (Mark 10:29-30).
Jesus assumes that it will be normal for people to leave things – even family members – in the course of following him but then promises that he will make up for these losses, both in this life and in the life to come. The promise to provide family members is another reference to the spiritual family of the church. While some may lose biological or nuclear family – or the potential for a nuclear family – because of their allegiance to Jesus, his promise is that he will provide the family we need through the church. Many of us who don’t have our own nuclear families have experienced this to be true.
This is a promise, but it’s also a challenge. We are the brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers whom God has promised. So, if we want to see this promise become reality, we all have a part to play in being family for others.
Sometimes the original shock factor of Jesus’ teaching is lost on modern audiences. But I think most readers are at least a bit taken aback by Jesus’ words in Matthew 10.
‘I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (Matthew 10:35-37).
Here we find that following Jesus can disrupt families in two ways.
First, some people will find that choosing to follow Jesus puts them at odds with their family and may even lead their family to reject them. This may be the experience of some gay people who become followers of Jesus. Family and friends may not be able to understand their new way of viewing things. But this, Jesus tells us, shouldn’t be surprising. The gospel is offensive to those who don’t believe it and every Christian should expect to experience rejection and persecution, sometimes even from their own family. In this way, Jesus sometimes sets family members against each other.
There’s also a second way that following Jesus disrupts families: We are to love Jesus even more than we love our families. This helps us to understand Luke 14:26, where Jesus makes the same point but in even stronger language. In both Gospels, this idea is explained by the next few phrases, ‘Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matthew 10:38-39). To follow Jesus, is to surrender everything else and to put him first. Following Jesus should be costly for all of us. Sometimes it’s painful; it feels like dying because we are losing our life in order to find true life.
Family – biological, nuclear and church family – is a good gift from God, but even God’s good gifts must be surrendered in our allegiance to Jesus.
Does Jesus hate nuclear family?
It’s actually quite hard to find Jesus saying positive things about biological or nuclear family. This isn’t because family isn’t good – Jesus’s demonstrated that it is in the way that he honoured his parents (e.g. Luke 2:51) and cared for his mother (e.g. John 19:26-27) – it’s because it’s only part of the story. Christians are part of a new family, and this new family puts our existing families in their place. This new family is also something that has been promised to us, especially to those who have left family, or the potential for family, to follow Jesus, and all of us have a responsibility to bring this promise into reality. And family, like all aspects of our life, must also be surrendered to Jesus, because it’s in this surrender, this death, that we find true life.