November 23, 2022
Scripture: Matthew 12:46-50
Standing amidst the gathered crowd all dusty clothed and sweating in the Galilean heat, vying for a place of proximity to Jesus inside the house where he was teaching, Jesus’s mother and brothers were waiting outside to speak with him. Upon noticing that the relatives of this great teacher had to stand in the crowd like everybody else rather than being granted priority status to Jesus’s ear, an anxious well wisher notified Jesus of his family’s presence and their need of his attention.
In first century Palestine, family was everything — linking you to blood lines and lineages that demanded respect while dictating your social status and prospects. In other words, familial ties ran deep and binding to those with whom you shared genetic codes. How you acted as an individual was a direct reflection upon your family in the eyes of society and the powers that be, and more so, when a relative needed something (especially an elder), you responded with urgency. Blood was certainly thicker than water, which makes Jesus’s response to the individual pleading for him to attend to his family all the more shocking and profound. As we approach a season fraught with Hallmark ideologies and stereotypical depictions of what family should mean and should look like, I invite us to consider what Jesus has to say about about the notion of kinship.
Question: What does Jesus teach us about the notion of kinship/family?
- Kinship/family means more than blood
- Our kin are those who show up, who make us feel less alone in this world
- Sometimes family can hurt us; Jesus knows what it’s like to be rejected by family
- We must read “Honor your father and mother” from Leviticus alongside “Love your neighbor as yourself” — implying loving/respecting one’s self is just as important as loving/respecting one’s neighbor and family.
- We are allowed to hold boundaries with others in the name of self love/care, even with blood relatives
My Uncle Baris is originally from Turkey. No, we do not share the same last name, nor do we share any genetic markers of relation, nor are we related by law. But he is my Uncle — always has been and always will be. Uncle Baris first came to the United States around age 4, traveling with his mother who was studying at Vanderbilt University at the time. They needed a place to stay over the holidays, and my grandparents’ church participated in a program called International Friendship House — where students who studied abroad in the United States could be temporarily housed with families who lived stateside. My grandparents offered their home in Gainesville, GA, as part of the program and were connected with Baris and his mother, who came to live with them for a while.
Keeping in touch over the years, Baris eventually came back to the United States to learn English and go to school here. Eventually, it was decided that Baris should remain in the United States for various reasons — that living here would give him his best shot in life. So, being the people that my grandparents were, they took Baris in as one of their own and considered him as such ever since. I have not known a life without my Uncle Baris in it. Even as a child, I just took it as fact because it was and is: that though we are not bound by any traditional markers of kinship, Baris is my uncle. He’s my family.
I had the beautifully tragic privilege of being at the bedside of both my grandmother and my grandfather as they passed on from this world a couple of years ago and about a year apart from each other. As a number of us gathered around my grandfather, who at that point was unconscious and close to death, we all took turns throughout the day saying our goodbyes amidst shedding tears, sharing stories, and reminiscing on a life well lived. And I’ll never forget when Uncle Baris said goodbye. He went up to my grandfather, tears streaming, got really close, and with his hand cradling my grandfather’s head, said, “You are the family I got to choose.” My grandfather, Reuben Black, passed away not too long afterwards, and of course, Baris was in the will alongside my father and the rest of their sibilings.
Over the course of my life, it was my grandparents who hosted most of our family gatherings at their house in Gainesville, GA. Since they passed away, it has been my Uncle Baris who has hosted us for family gatherings at his house in Gainesville, where he lives with his wife and kids and step kids. He is to whom we all flock when we gather together now — my Turkish Uncle Baris. We may not be technically related, but we’re family.
When Jesus responds to the individual’s concern about his family, he asks, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And 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.’” This is quite the proclamation to make and quite the invitation as well, essentially claiming all those present who do the will of God as kin. Jesus does not nitpick the family tree. He simply says, “you’re family, and all those who do the will of God are my family,” which begs the question: what exactly is the will of God? What does Jesus mean by this qualifier?
In Mark 12, when the scribes ask Jesus what is the first commandment, Jesus responds with the Shema: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, The Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” But he continues, quoting Leviticus and saying, “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” In Matthew 5, he goes even further still, remarking, “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” It would seem that, for Jesus, the most important quality of discipleship, the most important thing we are commanded to do, is to love and know that we are loved: to love God, love neighbor, love self, even love one’s enemy. As 1 John 4:16 reminds us, “God is love. Whoever abides in love abides in God and God abides in them.” So what does it mean to do the will of God? — it means, to love.
I wonder if what Jesus is saying here is that the true marker of kinship is not lineage, but love — a unifying and bold statement to make that declares any relationships that are of love as kindred, blessing the diversity of what family means and might look like for different people. Jesus calling those present with him his brothers and sisters and mothers I think is Jesus’s way of doing two things: one, calling us all into radical relationship with the Divine and with one another; and two, blessing the notion of chosen family as equally sacred and binding and just as much kin to us in the eyes of God as the families that we are born into.
As Jesus makes the long walk of his life’s journey from the rural backwoods of his birth to the bustling metropolis of his fate, he has a habit of making friends along the way. From wandering prophets to hospitable hosts, fishermen to tax collectors, cave dwellers to town pariahs, Jesus ever widens his welcome into relationship. At the end, before the culmination of the cross and resurrection, Jesus hosts a meal. This was not just any meal but was likely the Passover Seder — a Jewish ritualized meal traditionally held in the home with one’s family. And who was at the table of this last supper, this family meal? — his disciples, bound by the kindred marker of love that says, “I choose you.” Blood might be thicker than water, but the living water is thicker than blood.
Whatever family means and looks like to you this season, whether it is blood relatives around a table, friends gathered around a fire, partners holding us close, pets tugging at our hearts, the company of mountains and trees, or maybe it’s a church community gathering for food and worship; or if it’s all the above, some combination of the above, or something entirely different, whatever family looks like and means to you, know that, if it is of love, it is a kinship blessed by God as sacred and that the creator of the heavens and the earth claims kinship to you.
This season, may we feel gratitude for whom and what we have if we need to feel gratitude; may we feel grief for whom and what we’ve lost if we need to feel grief; but at the end of the day, may we know that none of us is ever truly without family — for it is love that is the marker of kinship and Christ who is love incarnate says, “You are the family I choose. I choose you.” Welcome to Haywood Street — where we’re not just friends, we’re family. Amen.