The mystery of the incarnation is that the one who was fully God should deign to become fully human. The fullness of this humanity extends to the fact that he had physical relatives; a mother and a number of half siblings. In Mark chapter 3 we see a rare interaction between the Lord and His relatives. The conservative commentators use this opportunity to discuss both the nature of the relationship itself and the bearing that has on a number of abibilical doctrines that have sprung up since the time of the apostles.
In his notes on Mark 3:31 William Burkitt divides his notes upon the family of Christ into four sections. I believe that these are a convenient subdivision for considering the significance of this passage and shall tackle the same four points in order. They are:
It is clearly the case that Christ is unique in many ways, even as a man. It is also clear that Christ transcends His manhood and is related to all men equally as their creator. Yet the Bible goes to great pains to position Christ into a very specific slot within the web of human relationships. The opening chapter of the New Testament is dominated by a family tree that allocates Christ specifically within the Jewish economy. Luke contains a very precise description of how Christ fits within the children of Adam.
However, as the Peoples New Testament Commentary shows the Lord was not always evaluated in the context of history; he was evaluated in the direct context of his physical family. He is specifically referred to as the carpenters son, the son of Mary and even the brother of Joses, James, Simon and Judas. He is also noted to have had sisters. Interestingly this family context does not seem to have provided Him with street cred; on the contrary it was the humble nature of His family status that damaged His credibility. That said, JFB points out that whilst the townsfolk were really decrying the ministry of the Lord they were also implicitly testifying to the veracity of His humanity. For Him to have lived in the town for thirty years, known as one of a family, without having drawn undue attention to Himself shows the humility and patience He possessed.
PNTC also tackles the question as to the correct meaning of 'his brethren'. It points out that the phrase occurs 10 times in the New Testament and on each occasion that natural rendering is indeed 'brethren' or even 'brothers'. Many catholics and even some protestants (including Burkitt) attempt to render this 'kinsman'. The GBN goes so far as to explicitly state these were cousins, presumably to allow for the possibility of Mary remaining a virgin. This is a fairly futile exercise as the Bible also mentions his sisters in two places and that is not a phrase that lends itself to an easy alternative rendering.
John Wesley does not concern himself so much with the fact they are His brethren as to their nature; specifically he points out that His brethren did not at this point believe in the Lord. JFB goes even further and reminds us that the same chapter of Mark tells us that His brethren wished to take hold of Him because He had not been eating properly and they deemed Him beside Himself. Thus as we study these verses we must understand that this is how the Lord dealt with a family that was not in tune with the divine program.
It is a great shame that the teaching surrounding Mary has become so polarized. There is probably no other character in scripture for whom conservative commentators go to such lengths to point out their faults. The reason, of course, is that catholic theology has almost raised Mary to the level of deity.
In this passage we see Mary, whilst very far from Godless, to be out of tune with the Lord's working. On this particular occasion we see Mary attempting to interrupt the Lord when He is in the middle of preaching. Burkett points out there are at least two other occasions when we see Mary insensitive to the divine agenda. The first noted is at the wedding in Cana the second is the incident of the Lord remaining at the synagogue when he was twelve.
The fourfold gospel emphasizes that on every occasion prior to the crucifixion in which Mary and the Lord are seen to interact Mary is being reproved by her son. TFG also notes that the Lord is not subservient to Mary the so-called 'Mother of God' and simply retorts 'Who is my mother?' when being hailed.
Burkitt offers without immediate justification that the Lord still cared for His mother. An obvious passage he could have used for this would have been John 19:26-27 where Mary was reassigned to John whilst the Lord was upon the cross. Perhaps less obvious but more telling is the circumstantial evidence. In much the same way that the townsfolk had known the Lord for thirty years His mother had known Him all the more intimately. If ever there had been a temper-tantrum, a cross word, or ungodly conduct then surely His mother would have known of it. Yet she was present throughout His ministry and was able to accept His calling and vocation.
Under his fourth heading Burkitt makes the comment that for me is an incredible summary of the passage.
To bear Christ in the heart, is a greater honour than to bear him in the womb.
In many ways this alone is enough to stop the silliness that has arisen around Mary. The mystery of the incarnation is awesome. It is amazing to consider that some ordinary mortal men shared half of their DNA with God Himself. However, the point the Lord is trying to make here is that the relationship between the believer and God is even stronger and closer that between God and those with whom he deigned to share genetic material. Thus if Mary becomes deified through her carrying of the Lord in her womb then she is still on a lower standing that those of us that carry Him still today.
Some men have great privilege through their natural birth order, they may be royalty, part of a priestly line, or even blood related to the incarnated Christ. Yet through our Spiritual birth order we may each become Holy Brethren that the Lord Himself is not ashamed to own. As Matthew Henry points out we do not have the privilege of His earthly presence but His spiritual one is not to be denied us.
In conclusion we may note that Christ was fully man; he had relatives and even had problems with His relatives which to many of us would act as validation that they were indeed real relatives. We have seen that Christ had clearly behaved as a brother, son and townsman for many years and was, in most respects, a family man even to His death. Yet we have also seen that the Lord's real intent was the spiritual domain and that He would graciously but firmly insist that His spiritual life, and spiritual family was always to take precedence over the hum-drum of physical existence. As we progress through the weeks ahead may we have the same determination to follow matters spiritual but may we also execute that determination in a gracious manner that befits those that have the privilege of carry the Son of God in their heart.