14th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Mk 6: 1-6) “Wait, Jesus Had Brothers and Sisters?” PDF Version
Homily for the 14thSunday of Ordinary Time, Year B: Mk 6:1-6 (2018)
Many an astute reader of the Holy Scripture has observed what seems to be glaring contradiction between the Catholic teaching of the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the numerous mentioning in Holy Scripture of the brothers and sisters of the Lord.
Many Christians claim that the scriptural references to the brothers and sister of Christ show that they are His biological siblings and that Mary was not a virgin for the totality of her life and that she had other children with St Joseph. Yet the teaching of the Catholic Church has always been that Mary was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ and that He was the only child she conceived and bore. So, which is the truth?
To properly understand what is written in the Word of God, we must appreciate the challenge of translating the original Hebrew and Greek text of Holy Scripture into other languages. While in English the words brother and sister are commonly understood to mean one’s biological siblings, the Hebrew language had a much broader and less precise definition of what is a brother or sister. This is why you will not find any specific word in Hebrew for cousins or stepbrothers or stepsisters or nephews or nieces. Rather, the Hebrew word for brother or sister can be used to describe a relationship that has nothing to do with being a biological sibling.
For example, in the Book of Genesis, Abraham and Lot are described as being brothers. Yet we know that Abraham was the uncle of Lot and this shows how the Hebrew language lacked the proper word to speak of the relationship between an uncle and his nephew other than saying they were brothers.
Hence, to speak of someone as your brother or sister in Hebrew and later in the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and His People, could mean you were referring to your biological sibling, your cousin, your stepbrother or stepsister, your niece or nephew, and many other types of familial relationships. If you were somehow related to each other, you simply called them your brother or sister.
For the four Gospel writers, who composed their accounts of the life of Jesus Christ in the Greek language, there was the challenge of having to take the broad meaning of the Hebrew and Aramaic words for brother and sister and express them in Greek. In the absence of distinct terms, the same words for brother and sister were used to designate different degrees of relationship. Hence, the Gospel writers choose to use the words Adelphos meaning brother and Adelphemeaning sister to describe both biological siblings and those you were related to by other familial ties. This is notable since the Greek language does have a word for cousins, anepsios, yet it was not used in the Gospels so as to capture the broad meaning that the Hebrew/Aramaic word for brother and sister had in describing various familial relationships.
Thus, when we speak of the Brothers and Sister of Jesus, we can see that we are speaking of those cousins and other familial relations that Jesus shared with the extended families He was related to by virtue of His parents St Joseph and Holy Mary.
Further evidence that the Brothers and Sisters of Jesus were not the biological children of Mary is found in the fact that they are never referred to as “the sons or daughters of Mary.” The Jewish culture of Jesus’ day did not use “last names” as we currently due. One was simply referred to in relationship to their father or if one’s father had died, then in relationship to their mother. Hence when St Joseph was alive, Jesus would have been known as “Jesus the Son of Joseph”.
Once St Joseph died, Jesus would be referred to as “Jesus the Son of Mary”, an expression we find at various moments in the Gospels. But never once are the brothers and sister of Jesus ever referred to as being the sons and daughters of Mary, giving us further evidence that these individuals were not the biological children of Mary of Nazareth.
In addition, if Jesus did have biological brothers, it would be unthinkable as He was dying of the Cross that He would entrust His Mother to someone who was not His biological brother.
If a first-born Jewish son was going to die, it was his duty to entrust his mother to the care of his biological brothers. But Jesus, whom St. Matthew tells us is the first-born son of Mary, gives His Mother to the care of St. John, of whom Jesus had no familial ties.
While Jesus did not have biological siblings, He did have the joy of being part of a large extended family, a family that included those he was related to along family lines, but also those with whom He forged a spiritual brother and sisterhood, those whom He called Disciples and fellows brothers and sisters of their Father in Heaven.
I for one have found this teaching of our faith to be among the most beautiful. That Mary is a perpetual virgin, before, during and after the birth of Jesus, allows for us to contemplate the great mystery of Our Lord’s birth and the special mission Mary had in giving birth to God’s Only Begotten Son. Yet Mary was not the mother of an only child. We can be certain she was a mother to all those cousins of Jesus, and maybe even mother to adopted children whom she and St Joseph cared for after the death of their parents, in addition to being the spiritual mother of every disciple of her Son.
This means that Our Lord grew up surrounded by those He joyfully called His brothers and sisters, while also experiencing the pain of many of them eventually turning their backs on Him, while others would become His first disciples.
Our Lord also inspired the Evangelists and later St Paul to write that anyone who believes in Jesus and follows His teachings is His Mother, Brother and Sister, His Spiritual Family, joint heirs to His Kingdom, filled with the same Spirit of God that allows us to cry out “Abba Father” in speaking of our common Father in heaven.
I suspect that today’s homily might have felt more like a lecture in biblical interpretation and less a homily geared towards practical application of the Word of God in our daily Christian lives.
But the more we delve into Holy Scripture and understand its meaning, the more we learn how the Word of God is always ever ancient and ever new, having important meaning and relevance in the time they were written but also having important application and relevance in our day and age. May God help us to understand His Word with greater clarity and joy and inspires us to delve ever deeper in the depth and wisdom of the Holy Word of God.