14th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fr. Joseph Levine; July 4, 2021
Readings: Ez 2:2-5; Ps 123:1-4; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Mk 6:1-6
In the middle of today’s Gospel reference was made to the brothers and sisters of Jesus; the brothers were even named: James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. On the basis of this Gospel it is often asserted, contrary to the Catholic faith, that Mary had other children after Jesus. Even taking the word ‘brother’ in the strictest sense of the word the conclusion is not certain because if Joseph had been previously married, then, any children of that marriage would have been regarded as Jesus’ brothers.
It is rather ironic that this passage would be used to impugn the virginity of Mary (and even the virginity of Joseph) since the reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters comes as part of a quotation of the words of the people of Nazareth who are showing their discontent with Jesus. Even though they have heard about his miracles and listened to the wisdom of his words, they refuse to believe in Jesus on account of his brothers and sisters. Jesus is true God and true man, but the people of Nazareth refuse to believe in his divinity because they see him as all too human, not on his own account, but on account of his relatives. The import of their words is: “How can the brother of these people we know so well be anything great?” Those who use the passage to impugn the virginity of Mary pretty much agree with the people of Nazareth.
Our starting point for understanding the great holiness of both Mary and Joseph should not be a passing remark in Scripture, but the words of God within the word of God. The starting point for understanding the holiness of Mary are the words the angel addresses to her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. (Lk 1:28) The angel makes Mary known to herself and to us as the Immaculate, full of grace. The angel says to Joseph: Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife. (Mt 1:20) Joseph, the son of David, is the worthy heir of the messianic line and the worthy husband of the Blessed Virgin, to whom God entrusted his greatest treasures.
In this light the Catholic faith has always professed that Mary was a Virgin before giving birth, in the act of giving birth, and after given birth. Her virginity characterizes her person; it is we could say the physical expression of her Immaculate Conception and her divine maternity. As for St. Joseph, St. Jerome wrote: “Joseph himself on account of Mary was a virgin, so that from a virgin wedlock a virgin son was born.” (Against Helvidius 21)
Following St. Jerome, the best of Catholic tradition has likewise held that the words ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ refers to Jesus’ extended family. The usage is very natural when the extended family lives in close proximity so that cousins, aunts, and uncles are in and out of the house on a daily basis. The usage is confirmed in the Old Testament when Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is called his ‘brother’. (Gen 13:8,11) In this case, many modern translations give the sense rather the letter rendering ‘brother’ as ‘relative’ or ‘kinsmen’. We could do the same with today’s Gospel and other similar passages in the Gospels.
Further consideration of the words of the people of Nazareth, set in the context of the whole of the Gospels, suggests that we could speak of Jesus’ family in two ways. First, there is his extended family, which is not so holy; these are Jesus’ ‘brothers’, his ‘kin’. Then there is the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The Holy Family is hidden within the clan of Jesus’ kin because only Mary and Joseph are in on the secret.
Here it is important to recognize that no matter how exactly we understand the trial that St. Joseph underwent when he discovered Mary’s pregnancy, the trial was his alone. One of the reasons that God, in his providence, gave Joseph to Mary as husband was to protect her reputation in the eyes of the world. The people of Nazareth never had any reason for suspicion. Jesus’ extended family never had any reason for suspicion. Joseph and Mary lived a virginal marriage, but that was their secret. Further, because Jesus was born not in Nazareth, but in Bethlehem and because immediately the Holy Family had to seek refuge in Egypt for a number of years before returning to Nazareth, all the wonders that surrounded Jesus’ birth remained unknown in Nazareth.
Yes, in Nazareth, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph would have been known for their goodness, but their goodness was the quiet sort of goodness that is easily overlooked or taken for granted. Indeed, such goodness can seem rather ordinary; they were not ‘colorful characters’ who drew attention to themselves. There was nothing about Jesus’ life in Nazareth among his ‘brothers’ that would have led anyone to expect the extraordinary deeds they had heard reported, or the words of wisdom they heard him speaking.
St. John reports in his Gospel: Even his brothers did not believe in him. (Jn 7:5) They might have been willing to accept him as the Messiah, the son of David, then they could become influential members of the new royal house, but they did not believe in the Son of God.
Jesus did not actually play human political games. The temple priests might have accepted him, had he honored them and sought their help, their advice, their collaboration. Likewise, the Pharisees might have accepted him, had he honored them and sought their help and advice. So also, his brothers might have accepted him, had he honored them and sought their help and advice. Some of them were likely older than Jesus and would have thought of themselves as the rightful and natural leaders of the clan, but Jesus did not consult with them before he went off to Capernaum and started teaching and working miracles. That was not the way things were done.
Jesus, however, does not come to us on our terms, but demands that we believe in him on his terms.
Hidden within the extended family of Jesus’ brothers was the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as the son of Mary; that is a sign that Joseph had already departed from this world. Further, Joseph was from Bethlehem, so the family of Jesus in Nazareth would have been Mary’s relatives.
What was hidden from the extended family was the truth that Jesus was the Son of God made man and born of the Virgin. They had seen only the natural, human side of Jesus; they were ignorant of the supernatural divine reality.
Jesus only began to reveal the supernatural divine reality of his person when he worked his first miracle, a few miles from Nazareth, when he changed the water into wine at Cana. (cf. Jn 2:1-11) He did not then return to Nazareth but went to Capernaum. (cf. Jn 2:12) From then on, we see Jesus’ divine power working harmoniously through his human nature.
He had ordered the servants at the wedding feast, as one man gives orders to another, to fill the stone jars with water, which he quietly turned into wine by his divine power. Later he would tell his Apostles to start feeding the crowds with five loaves of bread, and the bread did not run out. At other times he simply gave a word of command, speaking as a man, and produced thereby a divine effect. So last Sunday, we heard him give the command to the dead girl, little girl, arise, and she rose from the dead. (Mk 5:41) The words were human, the effect divine.
Hidden in the beginning of his human life we also see the harmonious union of human and divine. From an ovum provided naturally by the Virgin, Jesus was conceived miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit. Then he grew naturally to term in her womb but came forth in a miracle of joy without opening the womb. He lived and grew as a man, but was endowed with divine wisdom and power, which he displayed according to the circumstances of his age and the time and place.
This was the secret that was witnessed and shared by Mary and Joseph, the virginal parents of the virgin Son. Each of them was endowed with a grace, wisdom, and holiness proportioned to their mission, but displayed only according to their humble circumstances. They were husband and wife and had a Son who was the legitimate fruit of their marriage, but not of any physical union of husband and wife. In Jesus were hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge and grace. (cf. Col 2:3) Mary and Joseph were sharers in those treasures.
The brothers of Jesus were lacking in faith and saw only the human Jesus, whom they reduced to the level of their own understanding. Those who would diminish the holiness of Mary and Joseph, reducing them to the level of their own understanding, while they might pretend to defend thereby the uniqueness of Jesus, actual end up following the path of Jesus’ kin and reduce Jesus himself to the level of their own understanding. When we follow their path, we not only diminish Jesus in our minds, failing thereby to sanctify the holy name of God, but we diminish also our own hopes. Refusing to believe great things of God, we no longer hope for great things from him.
The Virgin Mary, on the other hand, is the woman of great faith (cf. Lk 1:45) who through her faith opened the door for the Son of God to enter the world. She proclaims the great things that God has done for her and thereby gives praise and glory to God. (cf. Lk 1:46,49) She teaches us to do the same so that we can experience the great things that God wants to do for us.
Jesus Christ did not redeem us merely so that we could lead an earthly life free of sin, but that we might, as human beings, live a truly heavenly and divine life.
Now, just as in Nazareth there were Jesus’ kin, his extended family, and his Holy Family, so also in the Catholic Church. Many people look at the Catholic Church, see Jesus’ kin, the general body of the faithful, who are all too human, and say, together with the people of Nazareth, ‘Where did this man get all this?’ … And they take offense at him. Yet, hidden within the Church are those who truly share the life of grace, the life of Jesus’ Holy Family.
Still, we have not said the last word about Jesus’ kin, his ‘brothers’. It seems that later two of them, James and Jude, would be chosen by Jesus for the number of his Apostles, and that after his resurrection the others would come to believe in him. It appears that as late as the middle of the 2nd century one of the relatives of Jesus was Bishop of Jerusalem.