While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and 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.’
I met one of my best friends—my daughter’s godfather, as it happens—waiting in line for the men’s room at seminary. It was the first day of orientation, and I was in a particularly foul mood. Debby, my fiancée (at that time), was thousands of miles away in Germany, I knew absolutely no one in New Haven, and I was beginning to wonder how or whether I would make it through the long year ahead of me. So as I found myself waiting in the long line for the toilets—being new to campus, none of us could figure out where other bathrooms were located—I resolved to crack through the isolation that I felt settling in like a thick fog, and turned to start a conversation with the person waiting next to me. That may seem an inauspicious start to a friendship, but by God’s grace, from that humble beginning has grown a cherished brotherhood in the Lord.
Our human relationships spring out of the most unusual and unexpected circumstances. Some are lowly—as lowly as a chance meeting in a frustrating line at Yale Divinity School. Some are exalted, and held in high esteem by every culture on earth. Think of marriage: the solemn sealing of two people brought together in the sight of God, and transformed into a sign of God’s love for the Church. Or consider the special ties developed among soldiers in a platoon, or athletes on a team: people bound together by a common goal and common concern, and made greater than simply the sum of their individual personalities. Or, towering over all relationships, think of the bond between a mother and her child: the care; the nurturing; the utterly immeasurable gift of love and concern that brings a helpless little ball of need into the full stature of man or womanhood.
And yet today, Jesus of Nazareth resets the standards for human relationships. Today he sets his disciples above his own natural mother and brothers. Today he announces that the measure of a relationship is neither the people involved nor the source of their connection, but the God who has brought them together.
Jesus’ words should rattle us a little bit. The Church has done its fair share to build up something of a cult around the nuclear family: mother, father, sister, and brother. We have told generations of Christian women that their highest aim must be the care of their families. We have told generations of Christian men that their greatest task is the support and sustenance of their households. And these are indeed high aims and great tasks.
But they are neither the highest, nor the greatest. Jesus is not saying that family life doesn’t matter. What he is saying is that the call of God matters more than any human relationship, no matter how essential and intimate. The new family that Christ has come to build is not traced through bloodlines, but through obedience to the will of the Lord.
By grace, we have been brought into that new family. May you, by your prayers and witness this Lent, invite all those whom you love—all those whom you call family and friends—into that same relationship. May we, together, learn not to exalt the bonds of blood or apologize for the humble beginnings of our friendships, but rejoice instead in the work of the Lord as he draws together his Church: a ransomed people brought “from every family, language, people, and nation.”