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James Martin, S.J.September 20, 2022
Photo from Unsplash

A Reflection for Tuesday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Today’s reading is one of the most surprising, and even disturbing, in the entire New Testament. To understand why, it’s important to set the scene, which is mirrored in the other synoptic Gospels, Mark and Matthew.

Why are Jesus’ mother and extended family in Capernaum, Jesus’ home base for his ministry in Galilee? Why have they come all the way from Nazareth, a difficult journey of a day or so, to this town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee? We find the answer in Mark 3:21: “When his family heard it [meaning news of his preaching and healing], they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” Other translations from the Greek say that his family wanted to “seize” or “arrest” him.

Let that sink in for a moment: Jesus’ extended family was so disturbed by what he was doing that they traveled all the way from their hometown to the Sea of Galilee to “restrain him.”

“For Jesus, ties to the Father were more important than ties to his family.”

Once they reach Capernaum, what happens? They are standing outside of his home (most likely Jesus’ own house: Mark calls Capernaum “his own town”). In response, Jesus says, as we read today, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”

This is a remarkable incident for those who think that Jesus’ family (even his mother) always understood him. It takes nothing away from Mary’s holiness or her constant love for him (or what was revealed to her at the Annunciation) to say that even she seemed surprised by his public ministry.

Perhaps even more important is Jesus’ response, which puzzled me for many years. How could he say these blunt words about his mother and family? Not long before he died, New Testament scholar Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., explained it to me in his trademark clarity: “For Jesus, ties to the Father were more important than ties to his family.”

Jesus loved his mother and she loved him. He loved his family and they loved him. Loving our families is part of being a good Christian. But as Jesus shows us, loving God, with all that entails, even if our family doesn’t understand that priority, comes first.

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