From time to time books are published that suggest that Jesus might have been married, and they usually suggest that his wife was Mary Magdalene. It is interesting and even entertaining to observe the controversy that swirls around every time such a book appears.
It is usually conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics who are most scandalized by the thought that Jesus might have been married. Personally, I believe that it is extremely unlikely that Jesus ever married. If Jesus had been married, where is the evidence? There is certainly nothing in the canonical New Testament about Jesus’ wedding or his wife or children. There isn’t even anything in the earliest non-canonical Christian writings about it or even in the schismatical and heretical writings.
I think the strongest argument against the idea that Jesus was married is psychological. How long can you keep a secret? There is something in human nature that makes is impossible to keep secrets. If Jesus had been married, that would have been just about the biggest secret in human history, and I am certain that someone would have felt compelled to spill the beans, but there is simply no record that anyone ever did.
However, there is something odd in the controversies that erupt over the idea that Jesus might have been married. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that it is precisely the people who are most upset by the suggestion that Jesus might have been married are also the ones who are most vociferous about so-called “family values”?
“Family values” has become the rallying cry of the religious right, and in many ways, I think they are on to something important. Drug abuse, crime, education, divorce, unwanted children, domestic abuse… Certainly better parenting and healthier families would do a lot to alleviate these and other social problems.
So, of course, we would expect Jesus to be on the side of family values. What did Jesus have to say about family values? Listen to these words from today’s gospel reading:
"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Uh oh... I hope the Forum on the Family doesn’t hear about this. They might try to have the National Endowment for the Humanities cut off his funding.
I’m not trying to be facetious, but it’s a little difficult to see Jesus waving the banner of family values as understood by many on the religious right. Jesus’ relationship with his own family seems to have been very troubled, and the trouble started at the very beginning. When Joseph learned that his fiancée Mary was pregnant before the marriage, he seriously considered calling the whole thing off, and was only dissuaded from it by a direct message from God delivered in a dream.
When he was 12 years old, the boy Jesus remained in the Temple rather than returning to Nazareth with Mary and Joseph. When they found the boy missing from their traveling party, they returned to the Temple and found him conversing with the learned men. Mary scolded Jesus rather sharply and said, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold your father and I have been looking for you anxiously”. And Jesus replied equally sharply, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2.49) By identifying the Temple as “his Father’s house” rather than Joseph’s house in Nazareth, the 12 year old Jesus was already declaring his independence from his family. Wouldn’t that be an interesting Gospel reading for Father’s Day?
And when Jesus finally launched his ministry of teaching and miraculous cures, his family believed that he was possessed by a demon and tried to seize him and bring him home with them. It was as though a family in our day and time were trying to abduct and “de-program” a child who had joined a cult. When Jesus learned what his family was trying to do, he looked around at his disciples and said, “Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother”.(Mark 3.34) In effect, he disowned his earthly family and announced the creation of a new, spiritual family.
Jesus and family values are an uneasy combination. Between the beginning of his ministry and his crucifixion his family consisted of a motley group of disciples that included both men and women. Many of them seem to have abandoned their own families. The gospels tell us that when Jesus called Peter and James and John that they dropped their fishing nets and followed him. In other words, they simply walked away from jobs and families to follow an itinerant prophet. This “family” that followed Jesus wandered from place to place. They seem to have supported themselves by asking for handouts. No wonder Jesus made the authorities nervous!
Now, don’t misunderstand me: Jesus did not endorse disobedience to parents nor did he encourage husbands to leave their wives or vice versa. Jesus was no advocate of irresponsibility. But the teachings of Jesus radically challenged the idea of family in the first century and perhaps in our world, too.
In the first century, family was everything. One was a Jew because one’s mother was Jewish. One didn’t choose the Jewish faith; one was born into it. That was why Nicodemus found Jesus so puzzling. “You must be born again,” Jesus said to Nicodemus, and the learned Nicodemus replied, “How can this be? Can one enter again into one’s mother’s womb?” (John 3.4) Nicodemus saw no need for a second birth. He had been born a Jew and a Pharisee and no greater heritage was imaginable. We’ve become so accustomed to the phrase “born again” that we do not see what a revolutionary idea it was in first century Judaism. It implied a radical rejection of the whole structure of Judaism. One was to be born again not by blood but by the spirit. One was to be born not into an earthly family but into a spiritual one. One’s earthly ancestors became completely irrelevant.
It was not just first century Judaism that made the family central. It was true of the Roman Empire, as well. Family was everything. The family was the central institution in Rome. The father of a family was known as the paterfamilias, and he had almost absolute power over those in his household. But Jesus taught his disciples to call no one father except God. (Matthew 23.9) With a stroke, Jesus severed the ties that bound his disciples both to their earthly families and to the larger societies of which families were and are the basic units.
“I have not come to bring peace but a sword. I will set father against son and mother against daughter...” Jesus came to found an entirely new kind of family. And it didn’t take long before first the Jewish authorities and later the Roman authorities realized just how dangerous his ideas were.
A tribe is just an extension of the family or a collection of families. It is odd at the beginning of the 21st century to find tribalism reasserting itself. Everywhere we look in the world, we see hatred and even wars that are based on kinship, that is to say, on families. Protestant families against Catholic families; Muslim families against Jewish families; Hindu families against Muslim families. People are hated and killed simply because of who their parents and grandparents were.
At their best, families are places of love and warmth and nurture. And I would venture to say that the healthiest families are those in which there is enough love not only for those who have a claim to it by their birth but also for those outside the circle of the family. God is constantly probing at us and our families to see if our love excludes or includes, if we will constrict the circle of our love or open our arms wide. Jesus challenges our idea of family values because he preached a gospel of love without limits. Nowhere does Jesus encourage neglect of family. Rather, he asks us to love the poor, the hungry, and the homeless alongside our own parents and children. Jesus preached a “both/and” love, not an “either/or” love.
Did Jesus preach an impossible ethic? Yes. Does that mean that the bar is set so high that we might as well not even try? Not at all. Instead, Jesus expects us to learn to love by loving those in our families and then extending that love to those outside, to those with no claim on our love, to those whom no one loves.
God put us in families because families are schools of love. Our families are schools of love, because it’s very difficult to love someone you share a bathroom with! We are put in families because it’s usually easiest to love those who are similar to us, but unfortunately, that’s where we stop all too often. Loving those whom we know, loving people who love us, is only love’s most basic arithmetic, but Jesus challenges us to go on and learn love’s advanced calculus. We must love our families, to be sure, but that is only the first step on love’s journey, a journey whose ultimate destination is to learn to love those who are completely different from us and perhaps even repellent to us.
So love your wife or husband or partner. Love your children. Love your parents. Love your sisters and brothers. Love yourself. But don’t let your love stop at the front door. Instead, keep your hearts and your homes wide open, because Jesus is coming to knock on your door.