25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, "Woman, here is your son," 27 and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
One thing that we will all have to face is the specter of getting older and once again needing to be taken care of. The question of who is responsible for that care has been increasingly questioned in our society, a question that didn’t even come up a few short generations ago. The basic assumption was that one’s family would care for them if they needed such care. When I was about twelve years old, my grandma was badly weakened by cancer, so she came to live with us for almost a year until she passed away. She wanted to die at home (or as close to it as she could get) surrounded by her family and she did that. Other people need more care and are put into care facilities as were both of my mother’s parents before they passed on. The family still took care of them, visited them frequently, and took a massive amount of responsibility for them and the oversight of their care. That’s just not always the case, though. There are many elderly people that are basically dumped off in these types of facilities and never really visited and never cared for. Who is responsible for them? Should their families be forced to care for them? Is it the government’s responsibility? What does it say about a society that even asks those questions?
In Jesus’ day and culture, this sort of question would not have even come up. The general assumption was that the families would take care of the older parents, especially older widows (although some Pharisees did try to get out of that by claiming that the money they would use for that was given to God but still in their care, so they couldn’t give it for the care of their parents). Family was the primary source of comfort, identity, and support in Jewish society. The entire society, in fact, was built around the primacy of the family. That’s what makes Jesus words here all the more confusing at first glance. Why would Jesus ask someone from outside of his family to take care of his widowed mother, especially when he had other brothers and sisters who could this (Jesus had four brothers: James, Joses, Simon, and Judas)? Why would he call on someone outside of the family, unless that was the whole point. He didn’t see family in the same way that everyone else in his society did. Even as his life is coming to a close, Jesus is still teaching his disciples and thinking about what will benefit them in the long run.
Before we consider why Jesus did something that would have been somewhat shocking in his culture, we have to wonder why anyone was at the foot of the cross to here that statement in the first place. His other disciples scattered because they didn’t want to get rounded up by the authorities and share the same fate as their leader, something that was quite common in the first century when someone was being put to death as the leader of a rebellion. The women were different, though. No one worried about women engaging in any such activities so they could pretty much come and go as they pleased without any worries. But John, though, why was John there? Why wasn’t he in fear of being connected with Jesus? After all, when they were in the high priests courtyard, Peter seemed to have some reason to be afraid, but John did not. The most logical answer, and one that coincides with early church traditions was that John was very young. He was certainly under the age of twenty and possibly even looked younger than he was. Apparently no one considered John much of a threat.
In Luke 8:19-21, we are told of a scene in which Mary and her other sons have become disturbed by the things Jesus is teaching and so they come to see him. Jesus’ response is shocking in a society that was built on family solidarity and loyalty (In fact, in the Jewish society, honoring family was part of honoring God. Their entire culture was built around honoring family. A son would usually work with and live with, or near his parents, until they died. The family was the source of your occupation, your security, your comfort, and your identity.) Jesus does not rush out to show respect, as would have been expected. He says that his "mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice." Was this a one-time social gaff on Jesus’ part or was this an intentional aspect of Jesus’ teaching? An examination of Jesus’ teaching throughout the gospels shows us that Jesus deliberately and systematically redefined the concept of family for those who would follow him. This is what lies behind Jesus’ declaration that John should care for his mother.
There are numerous examples in the gospels where Jesus implies that, for those who would follow him, a redefinition of family was necessary. No longer would his followers seek and find their identity and comfort from the things of the world, including their biological families. No, they would define their family as those who would follow Jesus’ teachings, in other words, those who would be his disciples. In Luke 8 (and Mark 3:31-35) Jesus said that his family was defined by those who do the will of God. We see Jesus teaching the same sentiments in a scene recorded in Luke 11:27-28. A woman shouts out a standard Jewish greeting to bless his mother. Rather than simply graciously accepting the intended blessing, Jesus uses it as another opportunity to teach that those who "hear the word of God and obey it" are the ones that will be blessed. Obedience to God, in Jesus’ mind, is what constitutes God’s family, not human birth.
Jesus continued this call for his followers to redefine their concept of family in Luke 9:57-60 as he tells a young man to leave the duties of burying his father to someone else. This challenging statement would only make sense if Jesus was completely redefining the concept of family for those who would follow him. Jesus is not banning his disciples from burying their relatives, but is, in the context of his immediate mission to Jerusalem, telling this man that if he wanted to follow him, he needed to prioritize the needs of the Kingdom of God over those of his normal familial obligations.
Jesus’ call for redefined family is seen further in Luke 14:25-27 when Jesus tells those that would follow him that they must "hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life." Without meeting this standard, says Jesus, no one can be his disciple. This teaching from Jesus is puzzling until we understand that ‘hate’ (miseo in Greek) was a common Hebrew figure of speech for ‘reject’ (particularly when it came to matters of inheritance; For Example: Malachi 1:2-5 where Esau and Jacob are mentioned as representatives of the people who would be accepted or rejected as the people of God). Jesus was telling his would-be followers that they must be willing to redefine what would be the source of their identity, comfort, and security. It would no longer be their biological family, or anything else in their lives. It would be in the new family that Jesus was forming around himself.
Jesus wanted his followers to know that to truly live the life of a disciple, it would be necessary to redefine their family (this does not mean that they would not care for or love their biological families but was a matter of identity and priority). In Mark 10:28-30, Jesus tells his disciples, who have given up everything for him, that they will receive, in return, families and homes a hundred times over, both in the present age and the age to come. Was this an early form of prosperity gospel? Was Jesus telling his followers that after an initial period of giving things up for him, they would then get rich? No, he was redefining family once again. When his followers mentally (and often physically) left their families as their source of identity and means of honoring God, they would receive a new family that would be a hundred times (metaphorically speaking) larger than their biological families.
Jesus then, is sending a clear signal of all of this when he asked John to consider Mary as his mother and care for her. Mary had other sons that could have done this, but Jesus wanted to send a clear message to his followers that the Kingdom of God involved new boundaries and new definitions of what it meant to be in God’s family. This act would continue, throughout Mary’s life, to send a strong message to Christians, as early church tradition tells us that Mary did go with John and eventually died in Ephesus many years later.
Finally, we should consider whether or not the early church actually followed Jesus’ teachings on this. We know from Acts 2:42-47, that the first Christians certainly began to act like a family. An often-missed detail from the first Jewish Christians, though, is that as part of their early practice they sold off land (Acts 4:34, 5:1). It would have been quite disturbing for traditional Jews to see an entire group like the followers of Christ selling off their lands. This would have been deeply concerning to Jews who saw their land as an inheritance from God (Psalm 135:12). Why would the early church have been so eager to sell their land? Certainly they wanted to be able to care for one another and give to those in need, but there is more to it than that. The land was a sign of their family inheritance and their status as the people of God. Selling that land was a strong statement to the rest of the Jewish world that they had rejected that standard of being God’s family and His people, and would, instead, embrace the new family of believers that Jesus created around himself.
This all had to be quite shocking and difficult for Mary. Jesus had told her at that wedding in Cana that his time had not yet come but she never could have imagined that it would come like this. She didn’t understand then that his time hadn’t yet come and still probably didn’t understand how this could possibly be his time. How could him dying like this change everything and create an entirely new concept of family? That’s the question that is still hanging in the air and that probably wasn’t answered for Mary until after Jesus’ resurrection. It was the resurrection that would cause people decidedly unrelated to embrace one another as their own family.
Jesus radically changed the view of family that we are to have. He defined family as those who entered into his life and followed the will of God rather than mere biological relations. Have you radically changed your view of family in way that is consistent with Jesus’ view of family? That doesn’t mean that we don’t honor, respect, or care for our biological families, but Jesus called his followers to put a priority of relationship, time, effort, and loyalty to our brothers and sisters in Christ.