Who is our mother, brother, and sister?

“While Jesus was speaking to the crowds,
his mother and his brothers appeared outside,
wishing to speak with him.
Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside,
asking to speak with you.”
But he said in reply to the one who told him,
“Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”
And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said,
“Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father
is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mt 12: 46-50)

In this passage, Jesus shows his greatness of heart, the breadth of a heart that can “love big.” Jesus is talking to the crowds, and the disciples expect him to stop for his mother and brothers, who want to speak with him. Instead, Jesus says, “here are my brothers and sisters, and mother” –his sense of who counts as family is broad and inclusive.

The first reading for Mass today is from Exodus and features God smiting the Egyptians, who are pursuing the Israelites through the parted waters of the Red Sea, which engulfs and drowns them. Parts of Exodus are among the readings I do when I teach my fall core class, as it’s a crucial reading to understand Judaism and the celebration of Passover, and important for understanding Christian freedom and Jesus as liberator in the context of some contemporary theologies. But this last year, I taught the passage to a class that included an Egyptian Muslim woman among the students. It was profoundly uncomfortable to realize that the passage I was standing there and talking about as emblematic of God’s protection of his people unproblematically treats “the Egyptians” as the enemy. While one could argue that the passage is really about freedom from oppression, or about showing Pharaoh not to be divine—and I would prefer that way of reading it— the fact is that the writings also reflect the prejudices and biases of the historical situation in which it was written (most likely during the Babylonian exile). Yet God comes to free all.

So I think it’s important to pay attention when Jesus talks about who his family is. Jesus doesn’t say, “My family is composed of those who follow me,” i.e., he doesn’t name his family as Christian disciples. He says, people who do the will of my Father, they are my family. Jesus’ emphasis is on action: those who do good, or perhaps are trying to do good in the world, they are my family. (Given Jesus’ emphasis in other passages on retrieving “lost sheep,” we can safely conclude that people who are committing bad actions and have gone astray are Jesus’s family, too.)

Jesus is trying to teach the disciples something important: to love broadly, to love in a big-hearted way, and not to allow biological ties, or ethnic ties, or even religious ties to overly narrow our sense of family. The human tendency is to find places and people with whom we feel secure, and “familiar.” Of course, family is precious. But all around us there are people in need, and also simply opportunities for connection, and reconnection that allow care to flourish in many places. Where Jesus walks, flowers of love blossom along the way; care is not confined or constricted to one space. Pope Francis reminds us in “Laudato Si” of St Francis who knew the natural world also to be brother and sister. Family need not stop with the human species.

By the way, the passage never says that Jesus doesn’t go over and speak to his mother and brothers. I imagine that when he is finished attending to the needs of the crowd, that he does go to find out what his family wants or needs. But the story is an object lesson for the disciples and for us all:  love where you are, love the people you already know and love well, and the people you meet on the way today. Love with greatness of heart.