A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. (Mark 3.32-33)
Few situations are more awkward than getting dragged into another family’s conflicts. When I was in college, a family in my parents’ congregation invited me to Sunday dinner. At church, they were the Waltons—soft-spoken, precious people. At their table, they were closer to the family in Moonstruck. Everybody had issues with everybody else, and no one showed any self-restraint in front of their guest. It was amusing at first, but the novelty thinned as the volatility rose with each spat. It peaked when the entire family turned on the eldest daughter, a young woman my age, who had completed college in three years and was fast-tracking through a prestigious investment house. While I long ago forgot the nub of contention, I’ll never forget my panic when her father said, “Tim, talk to her. See if you can get through her thick skull.” They gave me no chance to decline tactfully or say anything at all. I suddenly became the quarrel’s focus, with everyone insisting I agreed with her or him. I felt like a shuttlecock in the world’s craziest badminton match. Thankfully, I knew not to let their behavior at home alter my respect for their faith’s sincerity. In a way, it verified their earnestness. That said, however, it really wasn’t necessary for me to know just how “earnest” they could be.
I’m reminded of that awkward afternoon whenever I read about Jesus rebuffing Mary and His brothers’ request to speak with Him. It’s a side of their family I’d rather not see. It’s clearly important, although why that is is not so clear. After it’s recorded in Mark, the oldest Gospel, Matthew and Luke also include it. Their discomfort with the episode surfaces when they tuck it much later in the narrative than Mark, who puts it right after Jesus calls the 12 disciples. What’s more, both discreetly skate past His family’s intentions, even though Mark 3.20 explicitly says after they hear Jesus is drawing crowds, “they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Believing Jesus is crazy, they want to keep Him out of trouble! There’s no mistaking the compassion in their motives. Yet their presumption also reveals how meagerly they understand Jesus. His response underscores their estranged awareness of His identity and calling. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (v33) He asks. What He says next creates a very awkward moment for everyone around Him. Jesus looks at them and declares, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (v34-35)
The tense situation likewise underscores a fact about Jesus we seldom consider. He’s a Stepchild. He’s part of Mary and Joseph’s family without fully belonging to it. Naturally, we want to romanticize His upbringing. Once the drama of Jesus’s birth and infancy passes and His earthly parents return to Nazareth to settle down, we imagine He’s just one of the kids, loved and treated like the siblings who follow. We picture His family life as an ancient version of domestic bliss. And, to be fair, Jesus’s family definitely loves Him—especially Mary, who stands by Him to the end and remains faithful to His message after the Ascension. But it’s naïve to discount complications attached to parenting the Christ Child. There are legal matters like birthright and inheritance. There are pressures to provide Him the best education and training possible. There are concerns about guarding His identity to protect Him from political conspiracy and religious outrage. There’s deciding when and how to explain Jesus to His stepbrothers and sisters. Jesus is a special Child, more than any child ever born, and though we’re reluctant to say it, that makes Him a problem Child of a uniquely challenging sort.
Think about it: Mary and Joseph are charged with the Incarnate God’s nurture and survival! Can we reasonably assume they aren’t riddled with uncertainty and trepidation? The mere prospect paralyzes us, let alone actually doing it while we run a household and business, bring other children into the world, and navigate a maze of social and religious obligations. Does idealized hindsight deprive Mary and Joseph's freedom to fail, as all parents do? Is it really conceivable that Jesus’s family is so healthy and harmonious He escapes alienation and confusion that haunt the most emotionally secure of adolescents? The family’s attempt to save Jesus and His shockingly curt reaction suggests unresolved issues on both sides. They want to ensure His safety because they love Him. He knows what they’ve not learned: His safety can only be secured by doing God’s will. They don’t get it—not yet, at least—and that frustrates Him.
Our Reason for the Season
Jesus is a Stepchild, a special Child, a problem Child. That’s the ugly truth of it—and its amazing beauty as well, because each of us is also a stepchild, a special child, a problem child. With Jesus as our unabridged example, His life serves as our template. He’s born for a very unique purpose. So are we. God shapes Him by hand and designs His circumstances to do God’s will. God does the same for us. God places us in families and communities that take on the staggering duty to care for us and cope with our complexities. Like Mary and Joseph, even the finest of them sometimes fail. We must grant them that freedom—in hindsight, if necessary—realizing the healthiest home can’t shield us from alienation and confusion. When we embrace our God-given identity, placing God’s will above our family’s wishes, they may think we’ve lost our minds. They may try to save us from ourselves because they love us. We’ll miss that and wonder why they don’t get it. Perhaps, like Jesus’s family, they eventually will. Perhaps not.
These awkward moments are really about our nativity. Every one of us is born by design. Our presence in the world is a miracle all its own. God’s purpose is our reason for the season. Yes, Advent is about expectancy and desire for Christ’s birth. But it's also about expectancy and desire for our birth, our need to fulfill God’s purpose for us, as God wills, according to God’s plan. We have to get that, whether or not our families ever do.
Jesus is a special Child, which makes Him a problem Child. As Christ’s followers, Advent is also about our birth as special, problem children. God’s purpose is our reason for the season. (Tema Stauffer: “Teenage Boy.” All rights reserved.)
Postscript: “Ooh Child”
For all of us coming into the world to fulfill God’s purpose in our making, an unconventional Advent anthem: a masterfully optimistic remix of “Ooh Child” by Nina Simone. Some day, we’ll walk together in a beautiful sun…