Twelve Days: Jesus’ Sisters and Brothers

Why is Christmas the shortest season in the Christian calendar? I think it’s partly because of a relative silence in the New Testament. The season that starts with the birth of Christ would naturally be the time to learn about the years immediately following Nativity, but the Bible says almost nothing about Jesus’ childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.

Which means that at a time of year when even those who don’t celebrate Christ celebrate Christmas time together with family, we are left to guess at Jesus’ family life. While his mother makes important cameos at the end of her son’s life, Joseph virtually disappears after the second chapters of Matthew and Luke. The latter simply mentions that the Holy Family ended up back in Nazareth (adding only that Jesus “was obedient” to Mary and Joseph as he “increased in years and wisdom”), but the former drops this tantalizing tidbit in the middle of his gospel:

[Jesus] came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”

Matt 13:54-56
In Raphael’s 1518 painting, “The Holy Family” includes only one other child: Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist – Wikimedia

Much ink has been spilled debating the nature of this family: some argue that Mary and Joseph did have more children after Jesus; others contend that these “sisters” and “brothers” were actually half-siblings, step-siblings, or cousins. But I think our natural curiosity about Jesus’ family can lead us in more fruitful directions than such speculation.

Of “his sisters” we hear nothing more in Scripture, and apart from James (and maybe Judas), “his brothers” reappear primarily to help Jesus make an important point in today’s gospel text:

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to 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.”

Matt 12:46-50

Indeed, Jesus goes on to suggest that following him might require some to leave behind “brothers or sisters or father or mother or children” (Matt 19:29).

Clearly, he doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate such ties, this time of year or any other. And even if we can’t know much about his experience of being a son or sibling, it does matter that Jesus was raised within a family.

But it matters more that his family is bigger than the one he knew in Nazareth. For Jesus, “family” is defined less by the accident of birth than by the intention of doing God’s will.

It’s a lesson that his mother, brothers, and other followers took to heart. Again and again in the Book of Acts and the letters of the New Testament, the first Christians address each other using the intimate language of siblings. For example, here’s how Peter began his address to the Council of Jerusalem:

My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.

Acts 15:7-9

So, even more startling, the family of Christ transcends not only kinship, but ethnicity. A Jew whose own genealogy includes multiple Gentiles (all of them women!) came to fulfill the prophecy that we find in today’s Old Testament reading:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
    that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Isa 49:7

The Lord’s servant would come “to bring Jacob back to him” (v 5), for God could not forget the people of Zion any more than “a woman can forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb” (v 15). But the imprisoned, hungry, thirsty, and others seeking redemption would “come from far away” (v 12), as God the Father offered salvation through God the Son “to the end of the earth.”

The “fullness of time” gave birth to a different kind of family: one in which we all, Jew and Gentile, “might receive adoption as children,” that by accepting God’s Son into our hearts we might call out, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:5-6)

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