what is Christian morality? Part 4
3:31-35 Then his mother and his brothers arrive. While still outside, they send in and ask for him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they say to him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers [and sisters] are outside looking for you.’ In response he says to them: ‘My mother and brothers – who ever are they?’ And looking right at those seated around him in a circle, he says, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will, that’s my brother and sister and mother!’ [see also Matt 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21; for other negative remarks about family, see Matt 10:35-37, Luke 12:52-53, Luke 14:26]
This story seems to reveal some family tensions, but the message is clear enough. Of course, it’s not one we associate with modern Christianity. Rather, we associate it with new cults, which Christianity once was – in fact we’ve got a snapshot here of the cult before it became Christianity. The cult becomes the new Family – if others in your family don’t want to join the cult, abandon them and join your new brothers and sisters under God, or the new Messiah, or whoever. Many new cult leaders don’t get on with their own families. Jesus’s family thought he was mad [Mark 3:21], and he very likely felt the need to be clear of them in order to be taken seriously. One can sympathise, but it does raise doubts about the traditional family values theme of conservative Christianity. Such values may or may not be Christian, but they weren’t affirmed by Jesus in this passage. One has always to remember that Jesus himself was never a Christian, though Christianity may have derived from him.
This is a good place to reflect on all Jesus’s remarks about family. Of these, probably the most shocking is the one in Luke 14:26: If any come to me and do not hate their own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – they cannot be my disciples. Seems fairly clear-cut. In order to be a follower of Jesus – what was later called a Christian -you have to hate every member of your family, as well as yourself. I wonder why this passage isn’t more well-known? On the basis of this passage alone, one would surely have to conclude that Jesus was completely opposed to ‘traditional family values’. Or was he just having a little joke?
In Matthew 10:35-37 [and similarly in Luke 12:52-53] Jesus claims that he has come to bring conflict rather than peace, and especially conflict within families: I have come to pit a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A person’s enemies are members of the same household. Jesus is by no means a family man. It’s unlikely that even the most ingenious sermonisers could spin that one around. For example, you won’t find much in the way of off-setting positive remarks about family to cherry-pick [but see Mark 7:9-13 below]. Clearly, ‘family values’ conservatism does not derive from the teachings of Jesus, it just thinks it does.
4:3-8 The parable of the sower.
This is the first recorded parable of the canonical gospels, repeated in Matthew 13:3-8 and Luke 8:5-8. I won’t quote it in full here, nor will I comment on the lengthy explanation of it that follows [Mark 4:13-21]. The story, well-known enough, is about a farmer’s seed falling in four different places; by the path [eaten by birds], on rocky ground [it sprouted quickly but couldn’t take deep root and was burned off by the sun], among thorns [where it couldn’t compete and bore no fruit] and in good deep soil [where it thrived and bore fruit]. Jesus’s explanation reveals, or strongly suggests, that he’s talking about his message – i.e. God’s imperial rule. In some people it will take root, in some not. In the broadest sense it’s about receptivity to ideas, but I don’t think there’s any great ethical dimension to this.
4:24-25 And he went on to say to them: ‘Pay attention to what you hear! The standard you apply will be the standard applied to you, and then some. In fact, to those who have, more will be given, and from those who don’t have, even what they do have will be taken away!’ [see also Matt 7:2, Matt 13:12, Matt 25:29, Luke 6:38, Luke 8:18, Luke 19:26]
This is another troubling passage, oft-repeated, which would require some sermonising work, to make it ‘obvious’ that Jesus isn’t talking of material possessions here, he’s probably talking of, say, holy spirit. If you have lots of holy spirit inside you, you’ll be given more, come God’s imperial rule. If you haven’t enough, what you do have will be taken away – perhaps to render you fit for eternal damnation. Clearly, those with lots of the holy stuff inside them are morally superior to those with little, but this doesn’t offer us much in the way of moral guidance.
7:5-13 the Pharisees and the scholars start questioning him: ‘Why don’t your disciples live up to the tradition of the elders, instead of eating bread with defiled hands?’ And he answered them, ‘How accurately Isaiah depicted you phonies when he wrote: This people honors me with their lips, but their heart stays far away from me. Their worship is empty, because they insist on teachings that are human commandments. You have set aside God’s commandment and hold fast to human tradition!’ Or he would say to them, ‘How expert you’ve become at putting aside God’s commandment to establish your own tradition. For instance Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’ and ‘Those who curse their father or mother will surely die.’ ‘But you say, If people say to their father or mother, “Whatever I might have spent to support you is korban”’ [which means ‘consecrated to God’], you no longer let those persons do anything for their father or mother. So you end up invalidating God’s word with your own tradition, which you then perpetuate. And you do all kinds of other things like that!’ [see also Matt 15:1-9]
This passage provides an interesting example of Jesus as unorthodox rabbi. Certainly Jesus in this gospel spends far more time arguing with the traditionalists over ritual matters [as well as exorcising demons and performing miracles] than he does pontificating on real moral issues.
It’s worth noting though that, in this dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus picks out the ‘honour your parents’ commandment as being defiled by them. The basic idea is that the Pharisaic notion of ‘korban’, consecrating certain goods to God, allows those goods to be subtracted from whatever is owed to the devotee’s parents. Whether or not Jesus’s accusation is correct, he seems to have forgotten that he himself has refused to even recognize his own mother. I’m sure Socrates would never have been so glaringly inconsistent.