The True Kindred of Jesus

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

See general introduction to Mark.

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

See general introduction to Mark.

The World of the Text

Texts & Textural Features

Chapter three of Mark’s Gospel contains an example of what many scholars have described as a “Markan sandwich” or, to use the technical term, “intercalation.”  There are nine examples of “sandwiches” throughout the gospel.  The technique involved the interruption of the narrative (A) with a secondary narrative (B) before the original narrative (A) is concluded.  It can be difficult to see how the three elements are connected if the reader does not move beyond a “story telling” understanding.  The secondary narrative (B) underscores a major motif in the Gospel pointing to the difference between God’s way and our way of looking at, understanding and relating to Jesus.

Our text falls in the last part of the “sandwich” in Chapter Three.

(Narrative A) Mk 3.20-21 The “sandwich” begins when Jesus returns to Nazareth and his family try to restrain him from the activities which have been occupying his time. His family think he is Ἐξέστη (literally “out of his mind”)

(Narrative B interrupts this scene) Mk 3.22-30 Scribes support the family’s claim of madness and build on that to accuse Jesus of demonic possession.

(Narrative A returns) Mk 3.31-35 The “sandwich” concludes when Jesus identifies his true family (Resumption of Narrative A with extension and conclusion)

Characters & Setting

The overall setting of Chapter three – including our excerpt – lies within the Galilean ministry of Jesus.  Much of this early part of Mark is located around the town of Capernaum, identified in all four gospels as the town where Jesus lived as distinct to Nazareth (which is described as the town where he grew up).  In verses 20-35 Jesus is “home” (3.20).  This is where Jesus performed his first healing miracles (1.21-34; 40-45; 2.1-12; 3.1-6), called his first disciples (1.16-20; 3.13-19), engaged and disputed with Pharisees and Scribes in debates on the meaning of Torah (2.6-12; 15-28; 3.1-6), and became so well-known that great crowds followed him (3.7-12).

It is the family of Jesus that figures large in the verses we are studying.  In the first instance (3.20-21) it is Jesus’ “relations” (the Greek text describes them as “those belonging to him”) who appear, drawn out of concern that not only could Jesus not eat but, they feared, he had gone “out of his mind”.  In other words, Jesus’ own family believed that he was mad: we are left to consider how what he was doing and saying around Galilee might have encouraged them to form this opinion. The family Mark mentions are the mother and brothers of Jesus, none of whom are named. 

What does all this family information tell us about Jesus and his biological family?  It is both highly revealing and disturbing.  The references to Jesus’ family are negative:  they do not believe; they are not numbered among his disciples or followers; they believe he is “out of his mind”; they are so concerned about his behaviour that they come to Capernaum “to take charge of him” (3.21).

Mark is the only gospel writer to refer to Jesus as “son of Mary” (6.3). In the shame and honour culture of the ancient world, to be known as the son of your mother, as opposed to being known as the son of your father was to suggest that your biological father was not known and that your mother was a woman of questionable virtue.  That Mark refers to Mary so explicitly in this way points to a problem that the early Markan community could not avoid – Jesus’ origins were a source of scandal.  However, if the “problem” were only regarded in a human way, but not seen through the lens of Mark 3.31-35, it would remain unresolved.

The question of Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” is an interesting one especially for Catholic and Orthodox Christians and the ancient and post-biblical tradition about the perpetual virginity of Mary. Mark makes no mention of Mary’s virginity; indeed Mark makes no mention of the circumstances of the conception or birth of Jesus at all. It is something of a reminder that our sacred texts can be quite unsettling and upsetting; challenging us out of previously held pieties in order to be immersed more fully into the Word.  

The Greek terms ἀδελφοί (brothers) and ἀδελφαί (sisters) which appear in 3.32, can mean both blood siblings or other familiar relations such as cousins. For Mark’s community the question of whether the “brothers and sisters” were directly related to Jesus in a modern nuclear family sense did not arise and was not relevant. 

The final comment belongs to Jesus who rebukes his family for their actions and instead affirms another group: those who do the will of God. This phrase has come to be as the ultimate definition of a disciple: someone who does the will of God is the brother and sister of Jesus.

Ideas/ phrases/ concepts:

The phrases “out of his mind” (3.21), “He [Jesus] has Beelzebul” (3.22) and “blasphemes against the Holy Spirit” (3.29) stand out in the sense that Jesus’ family and enemies are unable or unwilling to see beyond their narrow expectations of who Jesus is, and what his mission demands. The accusation of “madness” or “possession” becomes a way of avoiding having to encounter Jesus as the one through whom God’s kingdom is breaking forth into the present world.  Furthermore, the power unleashed in this encounter is so great that no sin can stand before it, all can be forgiven and healed.  The only way this can be stopped is if I refuse to accept it, in effect saying that “God cannot …”

This in/out motif is found in the “placement” phrases: 

  1. “Standing outside” (3.31) – where Jesus’ mother and brothers are, as opposed to those listening to Jesus who are “inside”.  This creates a vision of the community and of who belongs and who does not.  Jesus’ family do not appear to belong to the new family gathered about Jesus “inside”.
  2. “Was sitting around him” (3.32) – the traditional ancient posture for a teacher was to be seated (hence cathedra – the teaching chair of the bishop) surrounded by disciples who sat at the master’s feet, literally below the master. The passage has Jesus’ family arriving as he is teaching his disciples. Again, it reinforces the non-involvement of Jesus’ family in his mission.

At the heart of the passage is the question and answer format between Jesus and the messenger from his family.  The messenger (3.31) tells Jesus his family is outside.  Jesus responds by asking “who is my family?” (3.33) before answering firstly with a gesture – “and looking at those sitting in a circle round him” – and then with the conclusion statement that brings the “sandwich” to its close and indeed the whole chapter: “whoever does the will of God, that person in my brother, sisters and mother” (3.35).

Questions for the teacher:

What am I wondering about the text?
What of this information is important to share with the students?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text?
What might they already know about (from their study of literacy)?
What might they wonder about?

World in Front of the Text

Questions for the teacher

How does the information assist you in understanding the text?
What else do you need to know?
How might Matthew’s community have reacted to this text?
What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?

Meaning for today/challenges

Relationship with Jesus is contingent not on biology, genealogy and pedigree or any kind of label I wear (such as Catholic, Orthodox, charismatic, traditional etc), but on listening faithfully to the Spirit and actively doing the will of God.  For the persecuted Markan community this establishment of relationship based on faith removed family, ethnic, social, gender and class obligations, creating a new family based on faith and response to God through encounter with Jesus. The breaking forth of the reign of God heralded in Jesus was new in every respect; challenging Jesus’ hearers to let go of the old way of doing things and embrace a thoroughly new way of being.

For the believer today this gospel passage is a source of great joy.  I am offered a place in the family of Jesus, not as a servant or something similar, but as a sister, mother or brother of the Lord himself.  I can be a person, a place of encounter, where others see and experience the breaking through of the reign of God here and now.  This gospel passage offers me both a great privilege and enormous responsibility; but it is privilege and responsibility powered through the Holy Spirit who makes me a hearer and doer of the will of God.

Liturgical usage

10th Sunday Ordinary Time Year B (Mark 3.20-35)

As with all Scripture, this passage lends itself to prayerful and meditative reflection through Lectio.  Depending on the group the leader may take a focus on ideas such as “family”, “belonging”, “being doers of the Word” and “faithful listening”.  It could also be an opportunity to sit with the Mother of Jesus and ponder, as she did, on her faith journey as a disciple of her son leaving behind many of the cultural traditions that have perhaps stifled Mary’s voice and dynamic presence.