Jesus Had Brothers?

The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him but were unable to join him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.” He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”          Luke 8:19-21

There are similar scenes in the Gospel of Matthew (12:46-50) and Mark (3:31-35) where Jesus seems to dismiss his family in favor of those right in front of him. These scenes cause us to ask at least two questions:

  1. Jesus had brothers? I thought Mary was and remained a virgin her entire life?
  2. Why is Jesus dismissing his family in such a rude way?

I guess that’s technically three questions. You’ll have to forgive my poor math skills. Let’s get to these questions.

First, it’s important to note – essential even – that the ancient Hebrew language had no word for “cousin” and the Greek word adelphoi has a broader meaning than blood brothers. Put those two facts together and we can see in the Scriptures a custom to use “brethren” for relationships other than blood brothers. In the Old Testament, a “brother” can range anywhere from a biological brother all the way down to two people bound by a covenant (2 Sam 1:26). St. Paul in the New Testament relates to his Israelite kinsmen as “brethren” (Rom. 9:3). He also gives the name “brethren” to biologically unrelated Christians in the New Covenant family of God. We hear this at Mass almost every Sunday: “A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the ________. Brothers and sisters…”

As for the question of whether Mary had other children after Jesus, a great place to look beneath the surface can be found in John 19:26-27. Jesus is dying on the cross and entrusts his mother to the Apostle John. From that point on, John tells us, he took her into his home. If Mary had other children, it would have been their responsibility to take care of Mary. Instead, Jesus entrusts her to St. John – who has no biological relation – in order to reveal a greater reality, which brings us to our second question: Why is Jesus dismissing his family in such a rude way?

This passage makes it seem as though Jesus is rejecting his family, but that’s not exactly what he’s getting at. You see, from beginning of time, God intended his people to be one family. When sin entered the world, the human family was broken and began to fracture more and more until nearly everyone lost sight of God’s original plan. How can we get back to that original plan? By hearing the word of God and acting on it! St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that whoever does the will of God is the brother and sister and mother of Jesus. Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” The three phrases mean the same thing: knowing what God desires and moving in that direction.

If I know God wants me to pray everyday, I am going to pray everyday. If I know God wants me to go to Mass on Sundays, I’m going to go to Mass on Sundays. If I know God wants me to feed that poor person, I am going to feed that poor person. If God wants me to repent of my sins, I’m going to repent of my sins.

You get the idea. Knowing what God desires and moving in that direction brings me back into God’s family and makes me the brother/sister/mother of Jesus. So, we can see that Jesus is not dismissing his biological family, but instead he’s elevating everyone else around him, reminding them that they can be part of his family, that they ought to be part of his family. This brings up an entirely new set of questions: Do I know the will of God? Have I heard God’s word and acted on it? Am I keeping Jesus’ commands?

Brothers and sisters, let’s listen to the Word of God and act on it.