The nature documentary Chimpanzee follows the story of a 3-month-old chimp nicknamed Oscar by the narrator. Oscar is part of a close-knit tribe of chimpanzees living in the forests of Côte d’Ivoire. When Oscar is a toddler, his mother is injured and separated from the tribe during a conflict with a rival gang of chimps, and it is presumed she falls victim to a leopard or other predator.
Oscar searches frantically for his mother. He is unable to care for himself and starts to lose weight rapidly, becoming very sick. He tries to find a surrogate mother, but none of the other female chimps are able to take care of him. It begins to look like Oscar might not make it.
But there is one chimp left in the tribe: their aloof, grizzled alpha male, Freddy. With no other options, Oscar begins to follow Freddy around, and although the older chimp ignores him at first, eventually he takes the youngster under his wing. Eventually, Freddy allows Oscar to ride on his back—something only mother chimps do.
And so this curmudgeonly, unrelated male chimpanzee becomes a mother of sorts to little Oscar. Their weird little family takes care of one another, and stability returns to the tribe.
From the cross, Jesus offers an adoption contract of sorts not unlike the arrangement made between Oscar and Freddy. Jesus gives his mother to his beloved disciple, and his friend to Mary—even as she watches her true son suffer and die.
When we look at who is at the cross, it’s mostly women. Most of Jesus’ disciples have gone into hiding. It is likely that Joseph has passed away by now—we don’t hear from him once Jesus has come of age. We see in other places in the Gospel that Jesus had brothers, but we don’t know where they are at the cross, either—so perhaps Jesus’ death left Mary alone. Jesus goes on to death, resurrection, and ascension; Mary stays behind.
So giving his mother to the disciple may be, in part, a way of providing for her in his absence. A widow had little power or agency in that day and age; it is unlikely Mary could have cared for herself without a man to support her.
But Jesus’ words, “Behold your son…behold your mother” hold a much deeper meaning than that. The church has interpreted their symbolism differently over the centuries—Catholics emphasize the role of Mary as the Mother of the Church, while Protestants hold up the disciple as a symbol of faithful discipleship.
One commentator points out that Mary is there at Jesus’ conception and birth, and the only other mention of her in the Gospel of John comes at the wedding of Cana, when Jesus turns water into wine, the beginning of his ministry. So Mary represents the beginning of Jesus’ ministry while the disciple represents not only its end but also its continuation. Jesus binds together the past and future of the good news he embodied by giving his mother and the disciple one to another.
And so Jesus creates an odd couple indeed. And isn’t this the way a church family works—and struggles? We have been given one to another, the old and the young, the traditional and the contemporary, the conservative and the progressive, the contemplative and the charismatic—and we are made family. One sect might go off by itself to preserve the old ways against any revision, while another might start something entirely new to be rid of the burden of the past. But each group will quickly find something lacking, because we need one another.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline emphasizes the importance of family while acknowledging that family may look different for different people. It says, “We believe the family to be the basic human community through which persons are nurtured and sustained in mutual love, responsibility, respect, and fidelity. We affirm the importance of loving parents for all children. We also understand the family as encompassing a wider range of options than that of the two-generational unit of parents and children (the nuclear family).”
For some of us, our families do embody that mutual love, responsibility, respect, and fidelity. For others, our families have been sources of deep pain, abuse, and disappointment. We may find the core of what it means to be family in a faith community or friend group more than at the Thanksgiving table. Sometimes our family doesn’t look the way we think it should, or we are told by society that something about our family is wrong.
In the political world, the term “family values” can sometimes be coded language. Yes, it is good to talk about the importance of marriage, of parenting, of stable homes and communities—but too often, when someone mentions “family values,” it implies the exclusion of alternative families, judgment on errant fathers, and condemnation of same-sex couples. Some politicians argue that it’s hypocritical to talk about “family values” without discussing family leave, sick leave, and vacation; one current candidate has pointed out that most things we think of as women’s issues are actually family issues and therefore concern all people, whether male or female. Mary being left alone at the death of her son was not a women’s issue; it was a family issue, so it concerned the beloved disciple and the whole community.
It turns out Jesus doesn’t really behave according to traditional definitions of “family values.” He never marries or has children. He seems to insult his own family on occasion. He spends his life and ministry, not building a stable home with a nuclear family, but wandering around Palestine with a dozen grown men.
In the book we’re reading for our Thursday small group to go along with this series, Stanley Hauerwas points out that, “None of the Gospels portray Jesus as family-friendly.” He points to a few awkward passages—first, in Mark chapter 3, when Jesus’ mother and brothers are looking for him. It says, “Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, ‘Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.’” And in Luke 14:26, Jesus says, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, spouse and children, and brothers and sisters—yes, even one’s own life—cannot be my disciple.” In Matthew 8, Jesus responds to a potential follower who wants to bury his father first with a seemingly callous “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
From the way some people talk about Jesus and the Christian family, you’d think you might find Jesus smiling out of one of the beautiful family portraits found in Centenary’s member directory—the ones where husband, wife, and kids all look perfectly coiffed and just thrilled to be together. (Seriously, y’all look good in those photos.)
But Jesus grew up in a broken family of sorts, raised by a mother and by a man who was not his real father. And in adulthood, Jesus’ flock was dirty and ill-behaved, all wrong for the church directory. His brood was the brood of vipers to whom his prophet John the Baptist preached a Gospel of repentance. Jesus was not exactly a family man in the traditional sense.
Maybe Jesus was trying to shake up our narrow definition of family. I admit I don’t understand all of his comments about the family, and some of them make me uncomfortable. But perhaps some of what Jesus is telling us is that until he matters most, what we call family will be meaningless.
C. S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce imagines a journey to heaven, which requires much more than a bus trip—there is an adjustment period where the dead must learn to live in this new world. One of the characters in the book is a woman named Pam whose son had died may years before.
As she arrives, she is anxious to see Michael and repeatedly asks where he is and when she will get to see him. The Spirit that meets her advises patience, as she is not yet ready. It turns out that her obsession with her late son is keeping her from a relationship with God—a God against whom she is understandably bitter. The Spirit explains, “You’re treating God only as a means to Michael… [you must learn] to want God for His own sake.”
Pam is outraged, and her response is haunting. She says, “I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of Love.”
Lewis doesn’t tell us the end of the story, so we don’t know if Pam is ever able to see Michael again or to let him go. We are left with her implied question—why would a God of love separate mother and son, father and daughter, spouse and partner and friend? On the other hand, don’t we sometimes idolize things other than God—the perfect family, a solid marriage, even our own children? And doesn’t that keep us from loving our family, our spouse, and our children for who they really are?
If Oscar had persisted in his search for his mother, he never would have bonded with Freddy, and he likely would have died. We may not always understand how family bonds are broken and remade, but we can trust that God is in the midst of it all, that God is forging a heavenly family bound not just by blood—or at least, not just by our blood—but by the blood of Jesus.
Perhaps Mary must take the disciple as her son so that she can begin to take Jesus as her God if she has not already. She loves Jesus by loving the disciple, and he does the same by taking Mary into his own home. We are called to love God first, for only in that way can we love and care for one another as family.
As high as that calling is, there is permission and space in there for messiness. Jesus names the fragmentation that our pretty directory pictures gloss over. He gives us the grace to be a broken family of God, promising that we will be reunited and given back to one another in time.
Sister Sledge got their band name from a pretty obvious place—they were formed by 4 sisters whose last name is Sledge. Their hit “We Are Family” achieved anthem status when it came out in 1979 and is so familiar that it would be hard to find someone who has never heard it. But did you know that the Sledge family has had its share of difficulties?
Karen Sledge, one of the sisters, has not been part of the band since 1989. A news story pointed this out when Sister Sledge was slated to perform “We Are Family” for Pope Francis last year at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It’s hard to miss the irony of singing the line, “I’ve got all my sisters with me” when you do not, in fact, have all your sisters with you.
But for me, that gives the song even more meaning. It makes it not a statement of fact but an anthem of hope. Yes, Sister Sledge is family, broken as they are. And we all are family, despite our differences, despite our failures. Jesus makes new families even from the cross, offering himself up for us, making us all blood relatives. He gives his mother to the disciple and vice versa, and he asks us all to behold one another, to take one another as family. And he promises that we will be remembered—as in re-membered, put back together and reunited and made whole, in the family of God.
Sarah S. Howell