Sun, Jun 10, 2018

Redefining the family (of God)


It's one of the great ironies of our time...

that one of the most ardent opponents of marriage equality--

and one of the most outspoken supporters of so-called "traditional family values"--

has been the former Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce.

To campaign against marriage equality--

as a denigration of 'traditional marriage'--

at the same time that you're carrying on an affair with an employee...

is, surely, the height of hypocrisy.

But, that aside, it's his argument against marriage equality that I want to focus on.

A few years ago...

at an anti-marriage equality rally organised by the Australian Christian Lobby...

Joyce expressed concern at the impact of marriage equality on his four daughters.

"We know that the best protection for girls is that they get themselves into a secure relationship with a loving husband"...

he said...

"and I want that to happen for them. I don't want any legislator to take that right away from me".

Of course, it's completely illogical!

How does marriage equality deny his daughters a heterosexual marriage?

But there are two things in his statement that concern me greatly.

First, it's his definition of marriage in terms of "protection".

And, second, his concern is that he stands to lose something--

it's his rights that are impinged if, for some fallacious reason, his daughters are unable to marry.

Don't we see here the vestiges of that 'traditional' view of women--

the property of their fathers before they become the property of their husbands?

It comes as no real surprise--

or it shouldn't--

that the most ardent critics of marriage equality...

are also the most ardent critics of the full equality of women.

Misogyny and homophobia seemingly go hand-in-hand.

And, despite all of our advances, marriage is still built on a "binary gender system"--

as the feminist theologian, Melanie Duguid-May, describes it--

with males dominant and women subordinate.

So many conservative Christians fixate on the so-called 'traditional' paradigm of the nuclear, biological family...

which they seem to believe is at the heart of the Christian faith.

The problem is, however-- 

as the New Testament scholar, Dale Martin puts it-- 

"there are more resources in Scripture and tradition to critique marriage and family than to support it".

And this morning's reading from Mark's Gospel is one of those:

"When Jesus' family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, 'He has gone out of his mind'...A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you". And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?"...Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother".  

Here, in this story, Jesus refuses to identify with his biological family.

Here, Jesus redefines the criteria for what constitutes his true family.

Here, in effect, Jesus redefines family.

Now, clearly, this saying has its origin in the situation and the dynamic of the author's community.

Many of them would have experienced rejection or ostracism from their biological families--

and their kin-groups--

because of their faith in Jesus.

So this saying, which the author places on the lips of Jesus, is meant to reassure them--

to offer hope and consolation...

to give them meaning and a sense of belonging. 

But it wouldn't be much of a stretch... 

to use this story to argue for a redefinition of family today.

Maybe family-- 

at least according to this story--

can be defined as any relationship that offers acceptance and belonging...

hope and consolation...

a sense of meaning...

and, of course, love.

All of that would, indeed, be fulfilling God's "will"--

God's intention for human life.

Thus, in looking at this reading... 

a number of commentators choose to focus on that--

on the issue of redefining family.

And yet, this story of Jesus' interaction with his family is not the whole story.

Our reading this morning is an example of a particular literary structure in Mark's Gospel--

what New Testament scholars call a "Sandwich Story".

Like a metaphorical bread roll, the author takes a story...

cuts it in two...

and fills it with another story.

The intent is that the filling "defines" the whole.

We grasp the point of the sandwiching story through the filling story.

So, like any good sandwich, it's the filling that's all-important--

that's where the focus really lies.


Here, the author sets up an ironic parallel between Jesus' family--

their lack of understanding...

and, hence, their implicit rejection of Jesus--

and the lack of understanding and explicit rejection of Jesus by the powers-that-be.

In the middle is a cluster of sayings about Satan not being able to cast out Satan...

a house divided against itself not being able to stand...

and a robber only being able to rob a powerful person by tying him up.

And while, on one level, these seem somewhat simple, pithy aphorisms...

the author labels them as "parables"--

by which, he means, something more akin to "riddles".

And they are all spoken against the powers-that-be.

What the author is saying, in effect, is...

we can't expect those in power to relinquish their power willingly.

We can't expect those who are corrupt to tidy up their act of their own accord.

The only way to overcome any sort of systemic injustice is to oppose it.

As Martin Luther King jr recognised:

"Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed".

The rejection and redefinition of family fits with that.

In a world where family and kin were so crucial;

where your identity and worth were bound up with...

and embedded in...

your family and kin-group;

where kinship was the backbone of the social order;

and where family "name" and all that it entailed determined privilege and power...

or the lack of it--

the author is challenging his readers to rethink the fundamental structures of their world.

He's challenging them to rethink who or what shapes their identity and their worth.

And he's challenging them not to sit quietly by. 

This Markan sandwich story is really a call to take a stand against forces of oppression and injustice...

forces of hatred and bigotry.

It's nothing short of a call to social revolution--

in the name of love...

in the name of God.

It's a call to stand up for justice...

for freedom...

for equality...

and for love.

And it's also a call to re-think...


to re-define...

the "family of God".


And, of course, that's just as true for us, today.

After all, so often, it's the institutional church that's driving...

or tacitly propping up...

the structures of oppression and injustice in our community.

We have the Australian Christian Lobby arguing that the so-called "Gay Panic Defence" for murder should be retained;

we have Fred Nile arguing against laws enacting an exclusion zone outside abortion clinics;

and we have various Christian groups lobbying for 'gay-conversion therapy' not to be banned.

Isn't it time to rethink who we are as church?

Isn't it time to re-define who are our true brothers and sisters in the faith?


"Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother".

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