Jesus’ Family Values

Part IV of the Advent Series “A Family Christmas”

Matthew 12:46-50; I Peter 2:4-10

family-values-quotes-2There’s a lot of debate out there these days about what constitutes American family values. Those values have become a political football in recent decades, with candidates running on various platforms that give visions of the ideal family. When I mention the term “family values” here this morning, a lot of you are conjuring up different images, depending on your generation.

img0151AWhen many of us in the Boomer and Builder generations think of family values, we harken back to memories of the nuclear middle class family with two long-term married parents raising their biological children. Think of “Leave it to Beaver” or “Ozzie and Harriet” as examples—families where the most stress was placed on raising responsible children who will be good American citizens and productive members of society.

More recent generations, like the Generation Xers and Millenials, have a different experience of family values. The divorce rate is now half the marriage rate. Twenty-seven percent of family households with minor children are headed by single parents. One third of infants in the U.S. are born to unwed parents. Two million children are now being raised by non-heterosexual parents and that number is increasing. For these generations, the primary examples are the TV shows “Friends” and “Modern Family”—families consisting of a circle of friends or a variety of non-traditional families sharing a kind of community together.

A lot of our cultural capital has been spent debating which forms of family are the best and which values should prevail. One side points to the decay of the family and the other side points to the freedom of non-traditional families. As Christians, we add the dimension of Christian family values to the mix, advocating for a biblical view of the family as the best way to raise children and bolster society. What’s clear, however, is that the nature and cultural value of family has been evolving for some time.

BIBLICAL FAMILYWhat we sometimes forget, however, is that even the biblical concept of the family and family values evolved even over the period of Israel’s history. In the Old Testament, for example, polygamy was standard practice as the patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had several wives each (a practice, by the way, that never goes well for anyone as the drama in Genesis rivals any soap opera you could ever imagine). By New Testament times, polygamy had been replaced by monogamous marriage in both the Hebrew and Greco-Roman cultures, though a double standard was expected in which men could have dalliances on the side while women in Hebrew culture could be stoned to death for adultery.

What didn’t change, however, was the closeness of family ties. Remember that ancient people were defined by three Gs: Gender, Genealogy, and Geography. In Hebrew society, several generations of a family would live in the same house, with sons of the patriarch expected to stay in line, stay at home, and inherit the family business. Even though a man and wife would agree with the command of Genesis that a “man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife” it was actually only the wife that did the physical leaving of her family. She would become part of her husband’s household and live in the family compound with her in-laws. Family ties were thus not only strong, they generally determined one’s future.

We’ve talked in this series about how Jesus grew up in a family like this. He is a member of Joseph’s household, with ancestors stretching back to David and Abraham. He grows up with a typical Hebrew mother and father, and trains in the family business. As the oldest, he would be expected to take over and care for the family when his father died.

But, interestingly, when Jesus grows up he violates the traditional family values of his time. He doesn’t marry. He leaves his home, his family, his family business behind and becomes an itinerant preacher. He is always talking about having a different Father. He transcends the boundaries of genealogy and geography, and treats the other gender as equally important. In his ministry, Jesus will actually take traditional family values and give them an entirely different definition.

In fact, if you’re looking to the Gospels for traditional family values of the Ozzie and Harriet sort, or for the sexually progressive values of the modern family, you’re not going to find them. Lots of people from both the conservative and progressive sides of the church have tried to use Jesus to bolster their own visions of family. Yes, Jesus defended traditional marriage by tightening God’s law on divorce and by giving women and children an important place in God’s family. And, yes, Jesus spent time with people who were known for their questionable sexual histories and non-traditional families (think of the Samaritan woman at the well, for example). But Jesus’ redefinition of family puts all these visions of family in their relative place.

synagogueCut to today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew. Actually, a version of this story appears in Mark and Luke as well, which means that it was important for all three of the writers of the synoptic tradition. In Mark’s version, in fact, the story begins with Jesus’ family thinking that he’s lost his marbles. Jesus had left home and had been preaching around the Sea of Galilee after his baptism and sojourn in the desert for 40 days. Great things had been happening and Jesus’ ability to heal people and gather crowds was gaining attention throughout the region.

The result was that wherever Jesus went he was surrounded by crowds of people—crowds that either loved him or that wanted to kill him. In Luke 4 we see a scene in which Jesus goes back to Nazareth to visit and attends a meeting at the synagogue. Since he’s been out there doing some amazing things, he’s invited to publicly read the Scripture for the day. Jesus opens the scroll to Isaiah and reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has appointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” At that, Jesus rolled up the scroll and sat down, saying, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke says that the crowd, which no doubt included some of Jesus’ own family, was amazed. “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?” they whispered. But then Jesus chastised them, reminding them that this message wasn’t just for them, it was for the Gentiles as well. He was expanding the definition of family to include people who were outsiders and the people of his hometown, even those of his family, thought he had gone too far. They became angry, took him out to a cliff outside of town (I’ve actually stood on that cliff) and they wanted to throw him off it. Mike Breen points out that no one in this story defends Jesus. We would expect that his mother or his brothers would intervene and stop him from getting killed. But they don’t say a word.

mother and brothersIt’s only when Jesus is in a house in Capernaum, down by the sea that they show up and want to speak with him. Now, remember, in Mary’s eyes she is still his boy and then, like now, when a mother wants the boy’s attention he is supposed to give it. Clearly, in Mark’s version, Jesus’ mother and brothers want to take him home, get him committed to a mental health facility, because he acting like he’s God or something. But Jesus, with his family standing outside, does something shocking.

He says, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And pointing at his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” What is Jesus saying? Family ties don’t matter as much as being part of the committed, obedient, family of God.

In a culture where family values and religion were comingled, this is outrageous. But it’s actually not the most outrageous thing Jesus says about family. In fact, the Gospels are full of places where Jesus seems like he’s downright anti-family. When some would be disciples want to follow him, one says, “Let me first go back and bury my father”—in other words, “I need to wait until dad dies so that I can get my inheritance and then I’ll follow you.” Jesus says, incredibly in that day, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” You want to follow me? You’ve got to make your family ties secondary.

A woman shouts out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” (actually, a lot more graphic than, “Your mom would be so proud!”). Jesus, who should have taken the compliment on behalf of his mother, said, “Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” But perhaps the most shocking thing Jesus says about family is found in Luke 14:26 when Jesus says this to the crowd:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself cannot be my disciple.” So much for family values!

JESUS WALKINGSo, what is Jesus doing here? Is he rejecting the family altogether? Well, as we’ve seen throughout this series, it seems that God values the family. He begins with a human family, works his plan through the family of Abraham, and has Jesus raised for 30 years in a human family. It’s hard to imagine Jesus reversing God’s course in that way. But as with most things with Jesus, he doesn’t leave things the way they are—he expands them. And here, in the Gospels, Jesus expands the definition of family and family values in a way that challenges every family and its values. For Jesus, the number one family value was doing the will of the Father and, by extension, doing what the Father’s Son commands. “Anyone who loves their father and mother more than me is not worthy of me,” says Jesus in Matthew 10, and “anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Being part of the family of God puts everything, even our family relationships, into perspective.

The key marker of family, for Jesus, is the reflection of God the Father in his children. Remember last week when Jesus referred to the temple as “my Father’s house,” the dwelling place of God. In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples that they will have rooms in his father’s dwelling place—they will be part of the family. But the primary criteria for living in the house isn’t just relationship, it’s also resemblance. Do we resemble the Father in our vocation, our actions, our attitudes? Do we resemble the Father’s Son in obedience, mission, and compassion?

What Jesus is doing is constituting a new family, one that goes beyond blood, one that includes a lot of different people from different races, different generations, different mothers and fathers, different upbringings, and different origins. What unites them all is their commitment, their obedience, and their vocation as members of the Father’s house. Jesus is raising spiritual children who look like him and like the Father in all that they say and do.

It’s not that Jesus is disregarding the importance of family ties, it’s that he’s putting them in their proper priority. If families are building one another up as a family on mission for Christ, giving one another the resources to become his disciples, then that, by Jesus’ definition, is a successful family. But if the family keeps its members from following Christ, then those who would follow Jesus have a decision to make. Jesus warned his disciples that because of their association with him, “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” Such may be the price of following Jesus. The first disciples of Jesus realized this. Peter said to Jesus, “We have left behind everything to follow you.” We left our families, our business, our way of life. What will we have now?” Jesus said to him, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my name’s sake will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:27). Jesus promises us a new family, even if our family of origin wants nothing more to do with us.

JESUS IN HOUSEFor Jesus, the most important family value is discipleship. It’s about being part of a new family—a family that may include our families, but that radically alters our goals, our priorities, and our way of life. Whatever form our human family has taken, whether it has been a nurturing place or a dangerous place, whether we have experienced the love and togetherness of a nuclear family, or whether we are single and on our own, Jesus offers us a family where we can find our place, our purpose, and a full, abundant, eternal life. It’s the family in which we learn and practice how to do the will of the Father and teach others to do the same. It’s the family where everyone has a family resemblance to Jesus. It’s the family where all families can find their hope and fulfillment.

In short, the family of Jesus is a family on mission. Peter calls the family “living stones” who are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood. “Once you were not a people,” says Peter, “but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” The family is built by Christ, who calls us together and then sends us out in mission to the world. We become part of the family business, no matter our gender, our genealogy, or our geography.

The word that describes this family best in the Greek is oikos—a family on mission to reflect the family of God, the family of the Trinity. As I said in the first sermon of this series, the Trinity is best understood as a family, a family that creates other families for relationship and for stewardship. It’s a royal family, and through Christ we become a part of it. Family on mission is what God has always been, and what God has always been about. He is our Father, Jesus is our brother, and we are now part of his big family.

This was the strategy of the early church, which acted like family—gathering together for meals, studying together, sharing possessions, and being united in inviting others into the family of Jesus. Sociologist Rodney Stark tells us that this is most likely why the Christian faith spread like wildfire in its first few centuries—it was a family that invited everyone in.

Somewhere along the line, however, the church stopped being a family on mission and instead became a dysfunctional family with a sedentary status quo. Churches that will recapture this idea of family on mission, a family that does the will of the Father, will be the ones that reach this increasingly secular culture, much like the families of the early church reached an antagonistic Roman world. In a world where Ozzie and Harriet are a fantasy, and where Friends and Modern Families are increasingly isolated and struggling, we have an amazing opportunity to model a different sort of family—the family of Christ.

we love jesusYou know what, church family? We can do this. I really believe this is what God is calling us to. We come together for the family gathering on Sunday, to be shaped in the will of the Father, and then we go out during the week and demonstrate our family resemblance to Jesus, inviting others to become part of his family as well. Too see the church as an oikos, to gather in smaller groups to be the oikos for one another—that’s the means by which a church, our church, will impact the world. In the season of Christmas, which is so stressful for many families, we have the opportunity to be a different sort of family where people can come and be made whole.

That’s why we exist, why Jesus called us together as a family. It’s why he came at Christmas, to make us part of his family; a family through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed.

“Who are my brothers, and sisters, and mother?” Those who do the will of the Father, says Jesus, are my family.


Breen, Mike and Sally. Family on Mission: Integrating Discipleship into the Fabric of our Everyday Lives. 3DM Movements, 2014.

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