Sunday, July 11, 2021

A Thwarted Coup d’État

“And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’ ”

The synoptic gospels recount an incident where Jesus is informed that his family members have gathered outside his residence in Capernaum and want to see him. The Lord then turns to his disciples inside the house and asks them, “Who are my mother and brothers?”

Such a reaction may at first sound a little dismissive to us if we do not understand the circumstances. But of the three accounts, only Mark provides insight into the true motives of Mary and the Lord’s earthly siblings.

Staging an Intervention

It’s not a big deal that two of the gospels leave out this background information. The motivation of the Lord’s relatives is not overly significant to the important lesson Jesus is teaching when he declares that “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” The lesson stands on its own, and perhaps that is why Matthew and Luke are content to omit the situation that provoked it. But Mark’s version certainly reminds us that doing and saying the right things may come at tremendous cost, and may alienate us from those we love most.

Today, we would say the family of Jesus staged an intervention. Other translations use words like “restrain” or “get” to describe what the family of the Lord Jesus intended to do to him that day they came to his home in Capernaum. We might imagine them giving the Lord a good talking-to, persuading him to straighten up and fly right. But that’s not the force of the Greek verb in this sentence, which really means something more like to “take custody” or “lay hold” of him. So then, the ESV’s “seize” is not too strong. It’s the same verb Matthew uses to describe Herod’s arrest of John the Baptist. If there had been care facilities in those days — and perhaps there were — then the family of the Lord Jesus might well have had him committed had they succeeded in getting him to come out to them.

Misjudged and Misunderstood

If there is something harder to live with in this life than being comprehensively misunderstood and misjudged by those closest to you in this world, I can’t think what it might be. In the pain department, being sick or injured can’t touch it — at least not for the Christian. After all, even illness that ends in death opens the door to eternity in the presence of Christ. Knowing this, the worst temporary physical pain can surely be borne, however awful it might be for a time. The martyrs have done it before and will do it again.

But to know that those you love most are opposed to everything you stand for and foolishly courting the judgment of almighty God? That’s a terrible burden to bear.

We don’t know how many “interveners” there were. My ESV says it was his family. The KJV reads “friends”. The Greek is para, simply meaning “those near to him”. Later in Mark’s version of events we discover it was his mother and brothers. Matthew tells us Jesus had at least four brothers: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. Some manuscripts of Mark’s gospel add “and your sisters”. Again, Matthew refers to “all his sisters”, which to me implies the Lord had at least three. In any case, since they were planning to take him by force, we can presume the family arrived in sufficient numbers to get the job done. If not, they probably brought a few neighbors.

Suspicious Minds

Commentators disagree concerning their motivation. Oh, we know they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” There was some question about the Lord’s sanity being debated. What we can’t be 100% sure of is who “they” were. Bengel writes, “the messengers [not the relatives]” and Barnes comments, “common report said”. Other writers assume it was the relatives of the Lord Jesus who kept saying to each other “He is out of his mind.” But if you have a family of your own, you know what families are like. You never get a group of three or four in which everyone agrees about anything, let alone six or more. There were surely different opinions within this group of relatives about Jesus’ mental state, about what needed to be done with him, about what might happen if they didn’t manage to stop him from engaging the public and enraging the scribes, Pharisees and Herodians.

These were people who had every opportunity to observe Jesus at close quarters in every possible situation for up to thirty years. If anyone had seen the immaculate character of the Word Made Flesh on regular display, surely it was this group. John’s gospel demonstrates that Mary obviously believed in him with some consistency, though her faith likely faltered from time to time as often happens when we are tested. His brothers, John writes, did not yet believe in him.


Still, it does not necessarily follow from their unbelief that any or all of them were truly convinced Jesus had really lost his mind. Maybe some did, but surely not all. Others may have felt embarrassed by the spectacle their brother had become, intimidated by the gossip of their neighbors, or concerned that Jesus would be put out of the synagogue, and that perhaps they might be considered guilty by association, as did the parents of the man Jesus healed who had been born blind. (“Ask him; he is of age,” they said, throwing their son under the bus to maintain their veneer of orthodoxy.) Knowing how brothers operate, there may even have been a history of petty jealousies that factored into the thinking of James, Joseph, Simon and/or Judas, and prevented them from seeing their brother’s glory as others did.

But not everyone present was necessarily acting from self-serving motives. Mary may have considered the possibility that Jesus was putting himself in mortal danger; certainly the authorities were already talking about killing him. Human nature being what it is, some of his other relatives no doubt convinced themselves they too were acting in his best interests. And if they couldn’t convince themselves, they surely made the effort to convince one another.

Nevertheless, they were determined to put an end to the Lord’s ministry before it impacted the family and its reputation any further. This is the power of the popular narrative: that it can intimidate your siblings, best friends and even your parents into doing the wrong thing in the name of responding to a perceived crisis as conventional wisdom dictates. So then, whatever their motives, in tacitly agreeing with the lies being told about Jesus throughout Galilee, the mother and brothers of Jesus were not merely lining up against a relative, but against God who had sent him and whose work he was doing.

Who Are They?

So then, “Who are my mother and brothers?” Does not verse 21 put a powerful spin on the Lord’s question?

Inside the house with Jesus were twelve men who believed in him and were prepared to identify themselves with him, sharing the risk he was taking and having fellowship with him in his ministry. Also present was a great crowd who knew all too well there was a risk they too might suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the Jewish religious leadership. But in that moment, these men and women were doing the will of God. For this, the Lord recognizes them as family.

Meanwhile, outside were the Lord’s earthly family members, in conflict with the will of God and surely at odds with their own consciences. Small wonder none of the gospels tells us that he went out to indulge his relatives in their little coup d’état.

Why on earth would he?

No comments :

Post a Comment