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.

From Virtue to Blessing

Raising his eyes toward his disciples Jesus said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the Kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.

Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets
in the same way.

-Luke 6:20-22

There are four statements of blessing in this passage, four beatitudes we might say. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who are weeping, and those who are hated on account of the Son of Man (a.k.a. Jesus). Now, we can take all of these statements at face-value, and there would be nothing wrong or inaccurate to do so. We can also look beneath the surface and see something even more powerful. St. Ambrose, one of the great saints in the history of the Church, does just that. He compares these four blessings to what we call the Cardinal Virtues, namely temperance, justice, prudence, and fortitude. Let’s take a look:

Blessed are you who are poor… Why  are they poor? This could mean the kind of poverty that immediately comes to mind, which is material poverty. Yet even those who are materially poor sometimes cling to the little bit that they have. So there must be more to the story. Jesus here is talking about those who choose to be poor, or who choose to have less, for the sake of Heaven. For this blessing, we can look to the virtue of temperance, which is simply defined as moderation or self-restraint. Those who are temperate know how to say, “I’ve had enough _____ right now,” or “I don’t need any ______ right now, even though it seems pleasing to me.” The “poor” in this blessing are temperate because they are shunning vanity and excessive pleasure for the sake of Heaven. Their poverty is a sign of their discipleship. Am I choosing poverty in any way for the sake of Heaven?

Blessed are you who are now hungry… Again, it seems there has to be more here than only lack of food to eat, for the same reasons as before. Jesus is talking about those who choose to be hungry. For this blessing, we can look to the virtue of justice, which is simply defined as the use of power to ensure each receives what is his/her due. The just person recognizes when others do not have something they ought to have – especially food and water – and then finds a way to help them get it. In this example, the “hungry” are exercising justice because they have given some of their own food to those who have none, since everyone ought to have enough food. They have made a sacrifice for their brothers and sisters in need! Have I given anything to my brothers and sisters in need?

Blessed are you who are now weeping… This weeping isn’t the result of any normal sorrow. No, this sorrow comes from looking at the world – perhaps even my own life – and seeing people turn away from the straight and narrow path. This blessing looks to the virtue of prudence, which is considered right judgment. When I exercise prudence, I am able to distinguish between those things and actions that will lead me closer to Heaven and those that will lead me further away from Heaven. Those who are weeping are weeping because they see so many people choosing things and actions that lead them away from eternal life with God. They are lamenting the vanities of the world, while keeping their own eyes fixed on eternal life. How often do I consider eternal life? Do I ever feel sorrow because of the vanities of the world?

Blessed are you when people hate you…on account of the Son of Man. As Christians, we have a duty to live holy and virtuous lives, but it doesn’t end with that. We also have a duty to tell people about Jesus and invite them into a living relationship with him. Obviously, not everyone is going to receive my words of preaching with gratitude and joy. In fact, many will outright reject the name of Jesus, and so will reject us. How do we respond? Hopefully, we respond with the virtue of fortitude, which is defined as courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. Those who have the virtue of fortitude will persevere in their evangelical efforts no matter the results they get. Even when the world rejects the name of Jesus, the courageous disciple will continue to announce to all those s/he encounters that s/he is a disciple of Jesus Christ. These people are hated, excluded, insulted, and denounced because they have persevered in their efforts to bring Jesus Christ into every corner of the world…and they will be blessed for it. Do I ever tell people about my relationship with Jesus? Do I ever tell them that they, too, can have a relationship with him?

There we have it: four blessings, four virtues. Let’s strive to live blessed lives.

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