I have, in the past, posted the homilies of a seminary colleague of mine, Fr. Philip Neri Powell, O.P. I find his style of preaching captivating with a simple profundity that’s rare, in my experience. I asked him if I could share his recent homily of the feast of St Angela Merici, and he graciously agreed. See his other work at hancaquam.blogspot.com The Gospel that day contained Jesus’ response to news that his family was outside the house waiting for him:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?”
And looking around at those seated in the circle he said,
“Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of God
is my brother and sister and mother.”
This is radical stuff, as Jesus fundamentally reconstitutes the meaning of family. In fact, throughout the Gospels, Jesus, in diverse ways, systematically dismantles core grounds of identity — e.g. ethnicity, blood relations, national borders, social status or cultural bonds — and reconstitutes them into a new human community gathered into an in-breaking Kingdom, defined by the double command to charity, and centered around himself. So, for example, he can say to the Pharisee who invited him to dinner,
When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor your rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
Saintly contemporaries like Jean Vanier, the founder of the remarkable L’Arche communities, give voice to this new vision of things:
Jesus is the starving, the parched, the prisoner, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the dying. Jesus is the oppressed, the poor. To live with Jesus is to live with the poor. To live with the poor is to live with Jesus. These are our brothers and sisters, and we, theirs.
Okay, Fr. Philip:
How does a woman become a mother? Or a man a brother? How do any of us become who we are in relation to someone else? Why does it matter who we are related to? Beyond knowing who shares our genetic material in a family—and who might be able to donate a kidney—familial relationships grant to each an identity beyond the self. In spite of modernist efforts to rip us as individuals out by our historical roots, we are not just “a me” freely floating in an abstracted social space. Each of us is “a me” grounded in “an us” and granted the liberty to branch out even further into a more generous “we.” The “we” all of us enjoy as members of a family comes about through conception and birth; we are given to a particular man and woman through pro-creation. Through no fault of our own, we have the families we have in virtue of Mother Nature’s spinning the genetic roulette wheel. The genes land where they land and here we are, complete with a lineage, a heritage, and an inheritance. We do not choose our families nor can we truly leave them behind. What then does Jesus mean to teach us when we says, “…whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother”?
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob picks out the Hebrew slaves in Egypt to be His people, His nation. He is their uncreated origin, and they are—by design and covenant—His children. Like a father, God leads, teaches, disciplines, and provides for His children. He frees them from slavery, marching them across the desert to a place promised them as their own. Once in the promised land, the children establish a nation, a family grounded in the sacrificial worship of their Father under a revealed Law. Though they are ruled on earth by a priesthood and a king, they are ruled from heaven by the One Who took dirt and breathed into each a divine breath. With the words of the prophets, God’s family moves inexorably toward the coming of His kingdom, a dominion governed by His Son, the promised Christ. Those not chosen by God to be members of His people are called Gentiles, unclean outsiders, those not of the covenant. In this closed family there is no way in except by the accident of one’s birth and one’s adherence to the Law once born.
When Jesus makes the shocking claim that “…whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother,” he is directly undermining the fundamental rock of the older covenant; he is teaching those who follow him that God’s family is no longer made up of those born to the Hebrews, those who follow the Law of Moses. Being a son or daughter in the divine family is now a matter of will, of aligning one’s intended purpose and daily acts with the revealed will of the Father. Do His will, become a child of His kingdom. It is really not possible to overemphasize the truly radical nature of this teaching. Jesus is upending centuries of deeply carved instinct and practice. The unclean, the outsiders, those not of the covenant are offered the chance to join God’s family not only as members but as heirs, beneficiaries of His earthly treasure and heavenly wisdom.
A good Jewish boy, like a good southern boy, knows that he risks endangering his life by saying things like, “Who is my mother?” There is no way to ask this question without simultaneously ducking for cover. Even as he speaks, he can hear the wind of the cast-iron skillet whizzing toward his head. And he can hear the indignant voice of his mother yelling, “I’ll tell you who spent thirty years feeding and clothing you!” Jesus risks the skillet and his own mother’s hurt when he denies her to the crowd. For us, the risk is more than worth the price of a bruised motherly ego and a bump on the head. It is worth our inheritance as sons and daughters of a infinitely generous Father. It is worth “me” given the chance to become “we” in the family of the One Who made us, freed us, and draws us in His glory toward a land promised to all who will but do His will.