He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary* and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence* at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
When I’m not busy pastoring here at South Haven, I also do a little bit of work on the side for an organization called the Center for Parish Development. One of the tasks I do is create graphics for social media. I have a routine, where I make sure the organization’s name is carefully centered at the bottom. I pick colors from a similar palette for brand recognizability. I work to arrange photos in just the right way.
I create what we consume relentlessly, neat, boxed, bright, catchy images and videos. Anything to get us to look up and pay attention, even if it’s only for three seconds. I spend time packaging information. I like taking lengthy theological treatises and turning them into a six word saying. It brings me great joy because it’s predictable and pleasing.
We expect this. Neat, well-designed, concise.
The Gospel of Mark is the briefest of the gospels. Not typically for detail, Mark gets to the point. I like Mark. Quick to read and understand.
Except for moments like here, in the sixth chapter. Amongst the story of disciples being sent, and chilly hometown crowd, we hear this brief mention of Jesus’ family. Not only that, but this detail that just zips by: Jesus, apparently, had sisters.
This has the potential to unravel the whole thing.
This is not easily repackaged, neatened up. It’s what happens throughout scripture, when these brief mentions of the women on the edges represent whole layers of stories and understanding that we only get the briefest glimpse of.
The story frays around the edges. The central message of Jesus and the disciples fades out of focus when you realize that the impact of all of this goes far beyond the main characters. Jesus’s actions have consequences. In this case, his actions seems to have impacted yet again more unnamed women, sidelined in the story.
How many times have we heard about these disciples, and yet not a word about these sisters?
I have sisters and I am a sister. There’s very little I wouldn’t do for them. This week it included riding with my sister Charity to a baby shower in Columbus I wasn’t even invited to. Later in the month I’ll travel to Seattle to stay in a small room in an Airbnb, sharing a bed with my sister Kristen. This is what it means in my family to be a sister. We show up for one another.
Yet families are complicated.
Back in chapter three, we get a brief mention of Jesus’ mother and brothers, who have chased after him. This is after Jesus has begun healing and performing miracles, but his family has arrived to grab him by the ear and drag him home. The crowd lets Jesus know his family is looking for him. Jesus replies in this way, saying, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
So much for family loyalty.
No surprise, perhaps, later when Jesus says, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Here we catch the briefest hint that Jesus’s family might have rejected him, just as he seems to have walked away from them.
But what about his sisters?
This is a loose end I can’t let go of. Jesus is so quotable, so loveable, so marketable, until he’s not. Until I’m wondering if Jesus abandoned his sisters, no matter how a sacrilegious thought this is to think. Even if they did shun Jesus, this gets personal when I think of my own sisters. This can’t be right. Wouldn’t Jesus and his family be, well, a little more Norman Rockwell?
Mark could have left this detail out. It could have been the amorphous hometown crowd, full of impersonal people, that rejected Jesus. But Mark had to bring family into it.
Was Jesus’s family trying to keep him home because they knew it would be safer there? Were they refusing his message and miracles because to acknowledge them would mean acknowledging this dark path Jesus was to follow? Was it easier to think of Jesus as brother or son, than savior of all?
Or was this more of a Cinderella story, with evil step mothers and step sisters, better abandoned?
I don’t know. What I know is this is an itch that I keep coming back to.
Did Jesus’s sisters end up following him? Were they there to see his miracles, to find their own escape from their hometown. I imagine one way or another, through Jesus their life was transformed.
To create something new, you must let go of the old.
This is a story that forces me to think about just how revolutionary Jesus really was and still is. This isn’t gentle Jesus, but strategic Jesus. This is Jesus who left his hometown behind and instituted a take em or leave em policy with his disciples. This is Jesus who travels lean and mean.
When I think about Jesus’s sisters I’m forced to remember that Jesus didn’t preach ease and simplicity, but fracture and challenge.
I don’t think Jesus hated families or his family. But I know he came to tell us about sacrifice.
I’m grateful that Mark included this little detail. Because it stops me from sliding through this story as if it’s something I’ve heard before. Yes, yes, the disciples aren’t to take anything with them, get on with it. But sisters are real to me. It’s a hook, a catch, that reminds me that our faith is about real people and real consequences.
Jesus unravels that which we clutch onto.
And this includes neat and tidy pictures about families. Jesus’s sisters are a reminder, a message of their own despite their lack of name and detail, that the world Jesus left behind was complicated. That it did tear families apart. But it did more than that.
Christianity from the beginning has always been a place for complicated families. Jesus brought this way of breaking and reforming families. The church became a place for people to find their new families. Jesus’s message held: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother!” We still use this language today, when we look around the room and don’t see strangers, but siblings in Christ.
But what about Jesus’s sisters?
I don’t know. I wish I knew more.
Yet I am grateful for their silent witness that forces me once again to consider that the bonds of family we find here in church are hard fought. That these are not simple and easy relationships. The life of faith is complex and difficult and I am quick to forget.
For today though, for Jesus’s sisters, I will remember.