Commentary on Luke 8:19-21
The mother and brothers of Jesus come looking for him but they cannot get to him because of the crush of people in the house where he is speaking. Jesus was in Capernaum at the time and Nazareth was about 50 km (30 miles) away. The mention of ‘brothers’ would commonly indicate cousins and not just siblings. When the message is passed in to Jesus, he says to all: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”
The story is told in harsher terms in Mark. He has Jesus say, for instance: “Who is my mother; who are my brothers and sisters?” It is suggested there that their purpose was to take him away. On the one hand, they thought he was mad and an embarrassment to the family and, secondly, that he might get them into trouble with the authorities because of the provocative things he was saying and doing such as questioning traditional interpretations of the Law. (We see a similar embarrassment on the part of the parents of the man born blind in John chap. 9. They refuse to speak to the authorities about their son: “He is big enough; he can speak for himself.”)
Luke’s account is softer and just focuses on the saying of Jesus. In fact, Luke has taken this passage out of its context in Mark (3:31-35) and turns it into a conclusion to his short section on the parables. And he modifies Mark’s “Anyone who does the will of God is my brother and sister” to match the end of his parable of the sower (the seed that falls in rich soil represents those “who have heard the word and take it to themselves”, v.15) by having Jesus say: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”
To a society which regarded itself as God’s chosen people merely by birth and an external ritual like circumcision Jesus asserts that belonging to God has little to do with blood or race but only with the relationship one establishes with God.
There is a lot of meaning in the words of the message: “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside…” It was clear from their behaviour that they were not, like the seed falling on fertile soil, ‘hearing’ him and so they were outsiders. Those who really ‘hear’, no matter who they are or where they come from, are ‘insiders’ and belong to the family of Jesus.
Of course, we know elsewhere, especially from Luke’s gospel, that Mary is not being condemned here – whatever about other family members. In fact, this is where her greatness really lies. Clearly it partly lies in her being chosen to be the mother of God’s Son but perhaps even more in her saying ‘Yes’ (“Let it happen to me according to your word”), in her unswerving faithfulness to that ‘Yes’ and in her standing by her Son to the very end when all the rest had fled.
When, on another occasion, she was indirectly praised for being the mother of such a Son, Jesus had spoken in words very similar to today: “No, blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.”
Our discipleship, too, is not determined by our being born into a Catholic family or just by being baptised or by observing the external requirements of our religion but by our total commitment to the Gospel and to an unconditional following of Jesus. Only then can we truly be said to be his brother or sister.