Mark 3:33 New International Version (NIV) 33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
By Christopher Cudworth
It is not often preached from the pulpit that Jesus so profoundly emphasized the isolation of the human condition. In 50 years of cognizant Christian worship, I have not heard this isolation emphasized with much clarity or conviction. It is too lonely a piece of scripture upon which to focus. It can frighten believers and frighten away possible converts.
The power to stand alone is important, but not the point of Christianity.
Yet the Bible clearly shows that Jesus, and God especially, want us to know that to be human is ultimately to be alone.
Part of the plan?
Of course that is what Christian fellowship is designed to conquer. And the Kingdom of God is created here on earth to prevent this form of isolation. From others. Even from oneself.
Yet the undeniable message of Mark 3:33 is this: Even your family and friends can and will let you down. God alone is the ultimate solace.
This isolating message is likely ignored in the Christian church because it flies too near the methods used by cults to trap people into wicked devotion. The famously devious method of some network marketing organizations is to have you try to sell and recruit your friends into the organization. But people are repelled by such efforts. Those who see the folly and the scam are legitimately repulsed. Yet a desperate soul often tarries on, convinced perhaps of possible wealth if only friends and family really understood the potential in the scheme.
The ultimate effect of network marketing schemes is that they can divest people of their human network. Then the “organization” or whatever you want to call it (some call it “my business”) has you dead to rights. Because once you have scared off your friends and family, the network marketing organization (or a cult) sets out to replace that network with whatever they tell you is vital and true.
Who are my mother and my brothers?
How does that compare to Christianity? To the example set by Jesus in saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
We can take another example from the Bible to examine the issue of isolation. Just before he was taken into captivity by a calculating band of priests from the very faith he had come to fulfill, Jesus went into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.
[ Gethsemane ] They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”
Of course we know how that segment of the story comes out. His disciples, who are depicted in the Bible as often failing in tasks of devotion and understanding, cannot stay awake while Jesus goes to pray. They fall asleep and when Jesus returns, having prayed to understand the very life he would soon give away as redemption for all, finds his devoted friends asleep on the job.
The deeper meaning of disappointment
It happens often to all of us. People disappoint us. We disappoint other people. And look at the word structure of that word, “disappoint.” To dis-appoint is to disassociate, or to send away either by intent or by mistake.
Jesus tries to warn us that disappointment is a big part of the human condition. Our failures are characterized by many as our sins, or our almost predestined capacity to sin.
Sin is the ultimate isolation from God. It is what separated the proverbial Adam and Eve from God in the Garden of Eden. Another garden. Another time. The garden is supposed to be a place of consideration and worship, our connection to stewardship and creation. And yet here we have two biting examples in the Bible where a garden is a rife example of disappointment. God disappointed in Adam and Eve. Jesus disappointed in his disciples.
And what are we to make of the idea that the world can be such a disappointing place?
Friendship and fellowship
This message seems to run counter from the idea that our fellowship here on earth can be a salve for the soul. Well, it is not wise to give up on friendship and love so easily, now is it? Our relationships are clearly of great value in this world. Love is built around and in them. Our families are designed, both in faith and through nature, to be a sustaining force in this world. The friends we gather around us and trust are people in whom we find joy and support.
None of those truths is undermined by the example Jesus makes in both his statement about his mother and brothers or his disappointment in his disciples. Jesus is master not only of this world in the spiritual sense, but also of necessary hyperbole. His teachings are full of striking examples that cut through our perceptions of what human relationships really are, and what they offer.
Our disappointment is our salvation, you see. Friends and family can and do disappoint us, just as we sometimes disappoint them. It is the isolating nature of the human condition to disappoint those we need and love the most.
But the real message of disappointment and resultant isolation is that God provides a model of unifying faith. Because to love is to forgive, even when our friends and family doubt in us, and disappoint. We trust in God because God trusts in us to make choices that reach across that disappointment to heal and forgive. God even asks us to love our enemies. That is a potent message if you want to understand the true “way of the world” through the eyes of God. You cannot ultimately conquer disappointment and isolation if you do not choose to love. You will be alone if you choose not to forgive, or fail in your devotion to a friend.
Yet when hurt comes calling, our natural tendency is to withdraw, pull back, and feel disappointment. We feel it so keenly we can begin to hate. Then we begin to seek targets for our hate because it becomes part of our nature. We look for the disadvantaged and the weak because in our own weakness and fear we want only to feel superior to others, somehow, so that we do not feel put down or pushed away from life itself.
The dangers of prejudice
Those are the foundations of prejudice of course. And of economic inequality, and caring not for the poor. We find the wealthiest among us susceptible to this isolating force of the “other.” Often that sense of disgust toward those we consider inferior becomes magnifying the more life seems to dispense fortune upon us.
Jesus recognized all this potential for prejudice, power and loss of imagination. Because imagining ourselves to be superior to others in any way is the ultimate sin, at least in the eyes of God. That is why Jesus told the wealthy to give away their riches and follow him. That is why it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to gain entrance to heaven. Wealth can be an isolating force.
It can, of course, also be an instrument for good. We see many examples of people who use their wealth for good. Even the robber barons of the early 20th century, who built monopolies and wealth beyond imagination through industry did turn around and do great things with their money. Carnegie. Rockefeller. The list goes on, and continues to this day.
So it is not wealth alone that is a sin, but wealth in some way that combines with isolation that God does not appreciate. Jesus broke through social strata and perceptions that people who were disadvantaged or different were somehow victims of their own sin. He also forcefully resisted the practice by priests of his day (and ever after, it seems) to turn scripture into laws that trap and hurt others. Jesus did not tolerate using God’s word for punishment and isolation. He would definitely not approve of the manner in which so many supposed Christians use scripture to create false social and economic strata today. The practice of using literalism to ostracize gays and women, for example, is abhorrent by nature to Jesus. The idea that the Bible is somehow a scientific text would also be absurd to Jesus, who taught in organic parables using examples from nature to teach spiritual concepts. Jesus was no literalist. He was no fool, in other words. Jesus disliked the actions of fools like that.
And what do we find as a result of such actions today? An increasingly divided faith, in Christianity. It has been that way since the start, it seems, where zealots who wanted a literal earthly kingdom ruled by Jesus were “disappointed” to find that his kingdom was one of spirit, not earthly wealth and power.
The many kinds of wealth, and corruption
Wealth is relative, of course. One of the catchiest devices of certain political parties is to figure out how to make people feel like they have ownership or a stake in the result of an election simply by making people feel like they will “win” somehow if they cast their vote in favor of the party making the promises. Of course, people can often be found voting against their best interests, be they economic or even spiritual, and voting on a one-issue platform that hands over power to people who pretend to care but really do not.
So we see that it is at times the power of isolating people from their best interests that is the most powerful political tool of all. Politics is the ultimate form of network marketing. It is the cult of all human cults.
Cutting through the lies
Jesus cut through the lies to make us understand that disappointment and fear of isolation is our worst enemy. Yet he calls us to stand alone first, to accept and understand that with the love of God, the grace of acceptance, we are never alone.
So have the courage to stand alone, and not be disappointed to the point of isolation when your friends or family fail you, or your work environment seems poison, or the very church that you attend turns out to be a flawed human enterprise. All these things are to be expected. Jesus and God want us not to be surprised by events like these.
Yes, we can still love the world, our friends and ourselves if we understand that the kingdom of God is made from the commitment to love and forgive. Then we will find and know our mother and our brothers, our sisters and our friends. They will be drawn to us by our humility and our example of faith. That is how it is all supposed to work.