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Christian Family Values

Sometimes we talk about Jesus as if he was a theological construct or a dispassionate miracle worker who roamed the earth for a time and had no human feelings about identity, no human longings for home or family.  But today’s Gospel lesson begins with these strange words: Jesus went home. 

 

I wonder what home felt like for Jesus.  Was it a house he built by himself?  Or was Jesus staying in a house belonging to someone else, where he just felt comfortable enough to call it “home?”  And when Jesus was at home, who were the family members who surrounded him? 

 

Most of us don’t think Jesus ever married or had children, but did people pity him for being a single person?  Did the neighbors judge him for not having “a family of his own?”  Did his mother’s friends try to fix him up with a nice Jewish girl?  Did Mary ever pester Jesus to give her grandchildren? 

 

Did anyone ever ask him about these things, and if they did, how did Jesus explain himself?  Did Jesus ever “come out” or try to explain to his mother and siblings and family that his life just wasn’t going to look like theirs? 

 

I don’t believe Mary and her children are villains for wanting to collect Jesus, the eldest son of the family, and bring him back home, where he’ll be safe and where they can talk some sense into him.  Just come back home, Jesus—back to your duty to your biological family, to honor your ancestors and give birth to heirs who will carry on the family’s name and honor. 

 

That’s the expectation, right?  Isn’t that “home” as in “ancestral home?”  In the social world of antiquity—a way we refer to the time period when Jesus lived—family and kinship are vital, determining personality and identity, vocational prospects,[1] you know…it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. 

 

Belonging to a family means survival.  Everything revolves around the head of the family, the man of the house, the father who directs the activities and organizes the servants, provides for everyone’s needs—this is the role a man is supposed to assume, right?  Why wouldn’t Jesus just get himself a tradwife[2] and have a bunch of kids and do what’s socially expected of him?    

 

It’s the tradition.  Do you remember the long lists at the beginning of the gospels of Matthew and Luke?  Both of those gospels list the ancestors of Jesus, although they each have their own list with different people.  But Mark’s gospel makes no mention of Jesus’s ancestors.  It’s almost as if Mark doesn’t care about family because that’s not the way Jesus is going to build a family.  That’s not the way Jesus builds a home. 

 

Ched Myers, a theologian, studied the gospel of Mark and sees Jesus’s actions as very purposeful, responding to his family of origin but keeping them outside the house.  The very people who might claim to be closest to Jesus by way of biology, aren’t going to gain access to him that way. 

 

Jesus is building a new understanding of family based on obedience to God, and the way to get close to Jesus will be through discipleship—that’s the way into the house.  You don’t get into the house by getting hired as a servant.  You don’t marry into this family.  You do the will of God, and that’s your way in. 

 

But Jesus isn’t only protesting the patriarchal system by reordering the social norms around marriage and households and family, for which people have accused him of being “out of his mind.”  Jesus is also critiquing the religious establishment that wants to maintain its own power by trashing his reputation and calling his actions demonic.  That’s the part of the story about scribes who come from Jerusalem to investigate Jesus, which Jesus calls out easily: how can Satan cast out Satan?  That doesn’t even make any sense!  If Satan is sabotaging his own work, he’s losing his power as an influencer: fewer likes, fewer views, and probably gonna lose his sponsorships too and wind up in massive debt. 

 

Then Jesus says this weird thing that I never thought much about: “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”  Now when I hear about tying someone up and stealing their stuff, that sounds to me like criminal activity.  I feel very uncomfortable considering how breaking and entering and theft could be good things that Jesus would endorse. 

 

However, the theologian Ched Myers makes sense of this weird statement from Jesus.  In his words:

“Jesus spins a parable so shocking that it not only polarizes the political climate, but provokes a rift with family and friends.  [Jesus] compares himself to a thief struggling to break into the house of a ‘strong man,’ whom he intends to bind and whose captives he intends to liberate.  And he claims that in this criminal venture, his accomplice is none other than the Holy Spirit!”[3]

 

The book Myers wrote about Mark’s gospel is titled “Binding the Strong Man,” because he sees this episode as the focus of Jesus’s ministry: binding up evil so that the captives can be set free.  Mark uses this same term about “binding” a demon in another exorcism story that follows this one, about a man with a demon whom no one had the strength to bind. 

 

And all this talk about Satan and demons and evil spirits is supposed to give us a flash back to a few weeks ago, a few paragraphs earlier, when a man with an evil spirit confronted Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum, on the Sabbath.  Jesus healed that man, on the Sabbath, publicly, very much on purpose. Jesus could have healed people quietly or privately or on a different day so that he wasn’t attracting negative attention from religious authorities quick to condemn his actions for disregarding the Sabbath.  Ched Myers writes,

“Many commentators, anxious to portray Jesus as a politically innocuous miracle worker, have argued that the political opposition to him was based upon a tragic misunderstanding.  This is social and historical nonsense: healers and magicians abounded and practiced freely in Hellenistic antiquity, but Jesus encounters official hostility almost [immediately.]”[4] 

 

These exorcisms and healings are not just nice for the individual who is healed, but Myers calls these symbolic actions—their meaning is deeper than the action itself.  He uses Martin Luther as an example—when we talk about Martin Luther tacking his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door, we understand that he’s not just any monk, it’s not just any public debate, not just any door: this was how Luther began his official public critique of the religious establishment of his day. 

 

Jesus is critiquing the religious establishment of his time by publicly healing people on the Sabbath, to purposefully draw attention to the priority of healing: putting people first, ahead of religious laws and traditions.  Jesus is critiquing the social understanding of family by gathering disciples, bringing them close and calling them family not because of biology or genetics but because of grace and obedience to God’s will. 

 

When Jesus says “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man,” Jesus is talking about nothing less than binding up evil itself.  When Jesus is healing people among the crowds who followed him, he isn’t simply looking at these poor souls possessed by evil spirits as unfortunate individuals in need of healing: Jesus is looking at all of us as captives stuck in a household headed by Satan. 

 

And if it takes breaking and entering and tying up the head of that evil house, well, criminal or not, that’s exactly what Jesus is going to do.  If it takes breaking some religious rules and even entering into the sanctity of our relationships by turning strangers into family members and tying up the evil forces that make humans find—honestly—really stupid reasons to hate each other, then you can bet that Jesus is gonna break in. 

 

Ched Myers even points out that “Mark drew the image of breaking and entering from the most enduring of the primitive Christian eschatological traditions: the Lord’s advent as a thief in the night.”[5] 

 

For anyone who has ever lived in a home where they don’t feel safe, where the head of the household is abusive, or where family members exclude each other based on marital status or would kick someone out of the home because of their sexual identity, then you know something of what it’s like to wish for a savior, someone who would break in and set you free. 

 

For Jesus’s mother and siblings who wished to reclaim their wayward relative, I wonder if—in their own hearts—they ever allowed Jesus to set them free from their limited understanding of family.  Could Mary be a model for parents of LGBTQIA+ children as they “come out”?  Mary didn’t understand Jesus at first, either. 

 

Are there some evils in this world that you wish would be bound up and plundered?  Are there some freedoms you would wish for?  Can you recognize that baptismal water is thicker than blood, how baptism unites us as family?  Can you imagine a savior who will stop at nothing to set you free? 

 

May we embrace our freedom in Jesus Christ, and may God give us the vision and the strength to carry on Christ’s liberating work. 


Amen.

Pastor Cheryl

 

 [1] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, page 168.

[2] “Traditional wife,” whose work is primarily homemaking and raising children.  See TikTok for more commentary on tradwives.

[3] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, page 137.

[4] Ibid 141.

[5] Ibid 167.


 


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