Joseph was absent from Jesus’ adult life, so responsibility for the family fell to the oldest son. Jesus was firstborn, but he’d been travelling instead of looking after his family.
Suddenly they turn up:
Matthew 12:46-47 (my translation, compare ESV)
46 He was still speaking to the crowds when his mother and his brothers positioned themselves outside, seeking to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Look, your mother and brothers are standing, seeking to speak to you.”
Why had they turned up like this? Were they in a need? Was there some kind of trouble? Had someone died?
Jesus doesn’t even ask what they want:
48 Jesus gave this reply to the messenger, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”
Did Jesus just disown his family? Why would he respond like this?
Matthew has described the rising opposition against Jesus. The Galilean leaders were plotting to destroy him (12:14). They’d denounced him as Satan’s servant (12:27). And now the family turns up now to take him away.
Had a Pharisee planted the idea in his brothers’ minds that Jesus should be at home looking after their mother instead of leaving the burden to them? They did not yet believe his kingship claims (John 7:5). They thought he was insane (Mark 3:21). Mary would have been harder to convince (compare Luke 1), but the combined pressure of her sons and the community leaders may have convinced her to come and “rescue” Jesus from the crowds.
Seeing his family on the doorstop reminds everyone that Jesus is not a royal figure. He’s from a tradesman’s family, a no one from an insignificant town.
But Jesus doesn’t respond as they expect. He doesn’t prioritize his family above everyone else. He redefines his family to include everyone else:
49 He extended his hand towards his followers and said, “Look! My mother and my brothers! 50 Anyone who does what my heavenly Father wants is my brother and sister and mother.”
Calling other Israelites “brothers” was not controversial. Jesus has been calling them brothers all along (5:22-24, 47; 7:3-5; 10:21). The children of Israel have the same ancestor.
But for Jesus there’s another dimension. They’re brothers and sisters not only because they share the same earthly father (Jacob), but the same heavenly Father too. This was new. No one taught Israel to treat God as “your Father” as Jesus did (Matthew 5:9, 16, 45, 48; 6:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 14-15, 18, 26, 32, etc.)
The Old Testament occasionally referred to Israel’s God as “your father” (Deuteronomy 32:6), and to Israel as God’s “son” (Exodus 4:22, and Hosea 11:1 used in Matthew 2:15). As the one who represented the people, the king could also be called God’s son (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7). In that sense, Jesus was the royal son who pleased the Father (3:17; 4:3, 6). In that sense, Jesus could fulfil the Father’s requirements on the family’s behalf (5:17-20).
In other words, Matthew has given us lots of background to understand Jesus’ statement here. Jesus was not a disgraceful son, failing his earthly father by not caring for his family. He was the obedient son, caring for his heavenly Father’s family and providing what they so desperately needed — liberation from evil, to be his family.
Jesus speaks as the king with the weight of the nation on his shoulders. He’s the son resolving the family business, freeing God’s enslaved family. Anyone who honours him as the Father’s Son, Jesus calls as his family.
This opens the door to people who are not Jacob’s descendants. The Father of Israel is the father of humanity. The Father provides for Israel and her enemies, for the just and the unjust. His children must not treat only Jews as brothers when their Father calls them to love everyone perfectly, just as he does (5:44-48).
Male circumcision was a boundary marker for the Jewish family. The word brothers (adelphos) was gender inclusive (as the NIV like to remind us), but Jesus goes even further. He expands the definition to explicitly include sisters and mothers (12:50).
This is a radical redefinition of “family.” The Son changes the world to be what the Father wants it to be — his family.
Welcome to life in his royal family.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 370:
Even in traditional Greek and Roman cultures, family ties were paramount. Being perceived as antifamily was a much greater danger then than it is today; yet Jesus followed the practice he had demanded of others (8:21–22; 10:37): the kingdom of God comes first.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 360:
There is a deliberate broadening of the scope of the statement by the inclusion now of ἀδελφή, “sister”, as the counterpart to “brother.” This is a particularly important modification by Jesus of the formula “mother and brothers” of the preceding verses. It stands in noticeable tension with the contemporary Jewish perspective, in which women had no equal rights in the study of Torah or in the life of the religious community, and is consonant with the progressiveness of Jesus on the issue of women seen elsewhere in the Gospels. Jesus identifies all who follow his teaching, not only the twelve but a much wider circle including women, as his family, his “brother and sister and mother.” The Father of Jesus has thus become also their Father (cf. 5:45, 48; 6:1–9, 14–15, 26, 32; 7:11; 10:20, 29; 23:9).
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Update 2022-04-30: Translation updated.