In the Gospel passage that is proclaimed at our Eucharist today, we hear words that frequently cause some consternation: “He was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.’” (Luke 8:20) The Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. If that is so, who are these “brothers” of Jesus who have accompanied his mother to see him?
The people of the Middle East at the time of Jesus lived in families that were centered round a patriarch. Brothers lived with their wives in the home of their father. When the father or patriarch passed away, the eldest brother took his place. After she was given in marriage, a woman would have lived in the home of her in-laws. The children of the entire household, those we would call cousins, were all regarded as belonging to one family. They would have called themselves brothers and sisters. We are so used to thinking of the Holy Family as three solitary figures living together in Nazareth that we find it difficult to imagine Jesus living in such a household. However, this arrangement was commonplace. Mary would have lived in the home of Joseph’s father with his sons and daughters-in-law. Once she bore a son, she would have been regarded as a member of that family.
The importance of family figures large in our culture, but it could not possibly be as important as it was to the Middle Eastern people of two millennia ago. Family and one's connection to family were the repository of one's heritage, the locus of one's present, and the promise of one's future all wrapped up into one. Without family, one could find oneself without the necessary resources to survive. Consequently, the extended-family style of living was a source of protection for all, especially for widows and orphans. The loss of the male spouse, as emotionally devastating as that could be, did not result in the displacement of a woman and her children. By the same token, a man’s resources, which were traditionally inherited only by the male members of the family, would not have been stripped away from a widow and her children because she would still be considered a member of the family.
Such living arrangements offer us an explanation for the Gospel passage we hear today. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was accompanied by other male members of his extended family when she went to meet him. Again, it must also be remembered that in this culture it would have been unheard of for a woman travel alone or even walk through the streets without a male companion.
However, Jesus’ words in reply to the request to go out to meet his mother and brothers confuses us not only because of their designation as his brothers, but also because he extends that term even further when he says: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” (Luke 8:21) His definition of family obviously broadens even the cultural mores of the first century Middle East.
Knowledge of the cultural practices in place when Jesus lived here on earth are vital if we are to understand the Gospel. Beyond that knowledge, however, is an even more important realization about the mission of Jesus. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus consistently advocated for the breaking down of boundaries that separated people. This is especially true in the Gospel of St. Luke who was a Gentile and would have been part of the “outside” world for most Jews. The traditional boundaries that are imposed by ethnicity, gender, religious faith, etc. are still part of our world today. We human beings are very good at building walls between peoples. Jesus came to tear down such walls. He asks us to look beyond our differences and to embrace our common humanity. When we begin to see that we are all brothers and sisters, then we will have learned to live in peace with one another.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator