Minister’s forum: Jesus’ arms are long enough to embrace all walks of life
As a child, I remember an ad for Timex watches that had the following slogan: “It takes a licking but it keeps on ticking.” This ad might be a good way to characterize the theme of this column.
The family is an ancient institution which has undergone significant change in purpose, structure and function over the centuries. The family has also been an important metaphor for the church and continues to be used to define its purpose Ð namely as the Family of God.
The New Testament has almost nothing to say in defense of the individual family. Christ enjoins us to go outside the family and to release the captives, and to bring good news to the poor, to love one’s neighbor as oneself; and to see in strangers, who do the will of God, our true brothers and sisters, our mother and our father.
In first century Palestine, Christianity proclaimed the value of all human beings – by insisting on marital fidelity, by supporting and encouraging those women converts who refused to obey their husbands on religious matters. It proclaimed that “we are all equals in the sight of God” and promoted individual responsibility.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus confronts a society that is rigidly divided by an intricate and stratified class system – one that separates the ritually clean from the unclean, the righteous from the sinner; and the insider from the outsider. In his public ministry, Jesus challenged the family structure that was in place. He criticized the code of conduct that kept the People of God divided into sub-groups. Jesus sought to restore broken families and to promote wholeness. He deliberately invited the outcasts to a place of special honor at the banquet. His acceptance of the alienated accounts for the scandal that constantly surrounded Jesus. He purposefully associated himself with public sinners, the physically challenged, the poor, prisoners, etc.
The family that Jesus gathered around him is not what we would call an elite or prestigious group; instead, it included every type of marginalized person – anyone who felt excluded by society. He extends an invitation to anyone who felt discarded and welcomes them as part of his family.
Jesus promoted family values that stressed equality, humility and public service. The new Family of Jesus should not reflect the values of a society in which the powerful lord over the weak. Rather, in this family, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Even the privileges associated with seniority must be overturned: “rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.” (Luke 22:26.)
Nowhere is the value of discipleship so dramatically illustrated than in the story in which Jesus’ mother and his brothers seek him out to bring him home (Mark 3:21-35). His family has heard alarming reports about him – some are saying that Jesus is out of his mind; others suggest that he is possessed by the devil. His family arrives to find him surrounded by a crowd so thick that they cannot even get close enough to talk to him. And one in the crowd says to Jesus: “Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you.” To which Jesus replies: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Matt. 12:48). And looking around at the crowd gathered about him he says “Behold my mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
There could not be a more disturbing contrast between the family of Jesus – constituted by blood kinship – and his new family – constituted by shared discipleship. It is nothing less that a conflict of competing family loyalties. The relatives of Jesus assume that their kinship gives them a particular claim on Jesus. He belongs to them and not to the community. Jesus challenges the maxim: “blood is thicker than water.”
Can we as Church today say that our parishes reflect the many groups and divisions that exist in society? Do we worship alongside the rich and poor, the clean and unclean, the marginalized and alienated? Can the homeless, imprisoned, and physically challenged look into our church and say: “Here at last is a place where I am welcome?”
– Father Richard L. DeMolen is the pastor at Our Lady of Tahoe Catholic Church.