As some of you know, many years ago I studied art history; my particular area of study was the Italian Renaissance – or as my friend bluntly (but not entirely inaccurately) put it: ‘brown pictures of Mary.’ It’s certainly true that, next to Jesus, there are far more pictures of his mother Mary than of any other subject in the Renaissance period. Two particular favourites of mine can be seen in the National Gallery in London, both by Leonardo da Vinci: the ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ and his preparatory drawing of ‘The Virgin and Child with St Anne’. (Both, admittedly, very definitely ‘brown pictures of Mary!’)
Mary is venerated in many branches of the Christian faith, and righty so. She is, by any account, a remarkable woman. Chosen to bear the Saviour of the world, she accepts her costly calling with unusual faith and humility – as we read every year in the Nativity Story. We also read, at the end of that story, Simeon’s prophetic words that ‘a sword will pierce her heart’ – and as Jesus died almost alone on the cross, Mary was still there, with him, experiencing the unimaginable grief of a mother.
But even Mary, great as she was, had a moment of doubt. She had nurtured and cared for her extraordinary eldest son for thirty years; she saw him grow in ‘wisdom and favour’; she knew the prophecies that the Messiah was to fulfil. Nevertheless, as Jesus begins his public ministry in these early chapters of Mark, as he astonishes the crowds and also makes enemies of powerful people, she’s confused. She wonders what on earth Jesus is doing? In today’s reading, she takes her other children to find Jesus and get him out of the public eye again. As far as they can fathom, Jesus has gone mad: (v21) ‘He is out of his mind.’
After another interlude (yesterday’s passage) where Jesus is once again confronted by the Pharisees, Jesus’ family arrives again, and the crowd lets Jesus know they are here (v32). Let’s not be too hard on them at this point: it’s easy with hindsight to judge them, because we know the end of the story. To a respectable family, who’ve spent years navigating the gossip surrounding Jesus’ birth, the overt enmity of high-ranking religious leaders was a new source of shame in that culture – another social scandal, another set of wagging tongues and sly looks to manage in the marketplace.
Little wonder they wanted to get Jesus out of the limelight. But Jesus is having none of it – indeed, his reply is provocative. Who is his family? Anyone, Jesus says, who does God’s will (v35). It’s worth noting that Jesus is not being disrespectful to his kin; he is simply reminding his hearers, and all of us, that God is doing a new thing. The saving work of God is now reaching out across borders, across family ties, to all who would receive it.
There is a happy ending to this part of the story. We know that Jesus and Mary were soon reconciled, as she travels with him in the last week of his life. We also know that two of Jesus’ brothers – James and Jude – became leaders in the early church. James plays a big role in Acts 15, and Jude wrote one of the New Testament letters.
We, too, can rejoice in this wonderful truth – that Jesus welcomes all of us into his family. May that thought lift our hearts today; and perhaps, too, we could pray that the Lord gives us an opportunity to bless one of our ‘family’ this week.