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Restoring broken family relationships

Family angst: relationships sometimes break down as a result of a mismatch in expectations

Do you have angst in your family? To be honest, I am not aware of any family that does not experience some kind of angst and the most common pastoral issue that people share with me is not, as you might expect, to do with illness or financial pressures, but to do with the breakdown of family relationships.

Sadly, the glossy, smiling, photos of their perfect families that some post on Facebook are often a veneer or mask for what is really going on under the surface.

But guess what? If you are experiencing tensions or breakdown in your family you are not alone. Jesus experienced angst in his family too.

There is this story found in the Gospel of Mark (you can find it in Chapter 3) where Jesus’s mother and brothers were trying to rein him in, publicly stating that he was “out of his mind”, and it is worth reflecting on his family dynamic.

Jesus was just out of his twenties, his father was not on the scene (presumably dead), and he was part of a large family with four brothers and several sisters. He was the eldest son, and as such, with an absent father, was responsible for the family.

He had his sisters’ marriages to arrange and a responsibility to provide financial support for his mother and dependents. We can also infer that, at times, Jesus and his entourage – if they descended on the family home – may well have been a burden on his family, yet it was the way he acted as an itinerant rabbi that really took the biscuit.

He was coming into direct conflict with highly respected religious leaders, and worse, with the occupying Roman authorities. I expect Jesus’s family were embarrassed and afraid of the consequences that might be in store for both Jesus and themselves.

This family angst, like that which is experienced by many of us today, boiled down to a mismatch of expectations.

We all have expectations of our family members, to act and behave in certain ways, and to uphold their commitment and responsibilities, and when either they or we do not, then there is a mismatch of expectations and a breakdown of relationship.

In fact, it is a mismatch in expectations that leads to a lot of breakdowns in all kinds of relationships, including working relationships.

I remember a piece of research, from about ten years ago, into youth work in the United Kingdom. At the time, the Church was the biggest employer of youth workers with the average contract of employment being three years, yet the average time a youth worker spent in post was under 18 months!

The researchers discovered that it was a mismatch in expectations that led to a breakdown in relationship between the church members and the youth workers.

The church members wanted to see “bums on pews“ on a Sunday and the youth workers wanted to empower young people and journey with them. Well, you can understand how things went wrong?

Anyway, I digress. The point is that Jesus’s experience of family life was no different to ours and he must have felt it keenly. In the story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus goes on to explain about his mission, and it was a mission he appeared to be tasked with alone, for there was no precedent in the Old Testament predictions, nor much focus on it in the early church, and this mission was his battle against evil. Jesus’s focus was on battling evil wherever he encountered it, head on, with the power and authority of God.

Yes, Jesus was teaching and healing, but it was because of this battle with evil that the religious authorities accused him of being in league with the Devil himself, and Jesus replied with some harsh words: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven and is guilty of an eternal sin.” Woah … You mean there is an unforgivable sin?

What Jesus was saying was that it is possible for people to continually reject God’s offer of forgiving love. We need to remember that forgiveness is about relationship, and that God holds out a hand to us, but that we have to take it for forgiveness to be mediated to us.

For Christians who are reading this, please do not worry that it is possible that you have committed an unforgivable sin. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven – only the sin of continually refusing God’s forgiveness, and the very fact that you are worrying that you have committed an unforgivable sin means that you have not!

So, back to the family thing.

Jesus stayed focused despite the authorities wanting him dead, the public being more interested in his miracles than his message, a betrayal by one of his closest friends, a family who initially thought he was out of his mind, and the religious leaders accusing him of being evil, and on top of this, Jesus must have felt pain and hurt every time he referred to his mother and brothers, for he loved them, and undoubtedly missed his father.

He also knew how his calling and lifestyle choices were at odds with the expectations of his family.

This story in Mark’s gospel ends with Jesus being told that his mother, brothers, and sisters were outside, asking for him, to which he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister, and mother.”

Jesus was not being cold-hearted, unkind, or disrespectful – just honest.

Importantly, the story does not end there. When we read on, we discover that his family came to believe in him, his brother James became an apostle and a “pillar” of the church, and his mother supported him to the very end.

So what is the faith lesson for us?

Perhaps it is a healthy appreciation that our family members will never be able to meet our expectations, and that we will not be able to meet theirs?

Perhaps it is an admission that only God can truly meet our expectations, and that in the same way that our relationship with God is restored through taking the outstretched hand of God’s forgiveness, we too need to extend that forgiveness to our family members?

Perhaps this is why, when asked how we should pray, Jesus responded: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us”? Of course, broken relationships can only be restored when forgiveness is metered between the two parties, but like God, we might have to be the ones who swallow our pride, carry the pain, and make the first move.

This week, as you feel the pain and weight of broken family relationships, may you lean into God and allow his love and forgiveness to flow through you, and may it overflow from you to all those you hold dear, now and for ever more.


The Reverend Gavin Tyte is pastor at St Mark’s Church

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Published June 15, 2024 at 7:59 am (Updated June 15, 2024 at 7:21 am)

Restoring broken family relationships

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