Doctor Seuss’ books were a favorite growing up. I remember a less popular Doctor Seuss book titled: “Are You My Mother?” As a young child I thought it was pretty silly to follow the main character, a little bird, on his journey to find who his mother was. Asking who my mother is could be compared to asking a rhetorical question. My response would be “No duh, I know who my mother is!” Jesus, who is the master at getting people to think and consider what a new Kingdom might look like, flips the coin with the answer to this question. The answer to who your mother is might not be answered so easily. The focus of this blog will be on the second chapter of Edwin Friedman’s book Failure of Nerve and how the author’s findings support Jesus differentiation when he asks in Matthew 12:46-50, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”
Friedman argues that a society’s regression can be found in any institution in America. This regression is characterized by the herd mentality, chronic anxiety, and leaders’ inability to self-differentiate. He states, “The most critical issue in understanding human institutions is how well they are able to handle the natural tension between individuality and togetherness.” Jesus makes His individuality known in a surprising way in Matthew 12:46-50. Jesus is found talking to a crowd. Meanwhile, his family members stood outside, waiting to talk with him. When Jesus was told that they were wanting to talk with Him, He said, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? Matt. 12:28(New International Version) This question would be mind boggling to those who were listening. I will look at why Jesus possibly said this and how the hearers might have heard this question. Friedman would support Jesus in His ability to self-differentiate from His family, but Jesus does more than this. Jesus redefines family.
The culture Jesus lived in was completely oriented around the family. Like many cultures, in Jewish homes, parents are established as those who would command the respect and consideration of the children. Dale and Sandy Hansen, in their book: Questions Jesus Asks, states, “Close family ties were the norm in the culture in which Jesus grew up. While respecting His family members, Jesus had even higher priorities.”  What is a higher priority than family? Jesus was wanting his listeners to gain new insight as to what family is to look like, how it is defined and how it is to function. Jesus did not jump up to go outside and inquire of his family members: “Hey bro!”, “Yo ma! What’s up?” Instead, Jesus says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Matt. 12:49 Jesus’ ties to His family went only so far, His new family, the Church, was being established in His midst. Friedman begins to describe this: a “Well defined self in a leader– what I call self-differentiation– is not only critical to effective leadership, it is precisely the leadership characteristic that is most likely to promote the kind of community that preserves the self of its members.” Jesus separates himself from his earthly family and associates himself with those in his presence as they were those who were seeking to do the will of the Father. Those who demonstrate good relationship skills “use fast track relational skills to build groups that love working together and love to tell others about their mission and their leader.”  Jesus not only uses good relationship skills but gives a picture for the Church, the Family of God. Jesus loved to tell people about His mission and His Father.
In addition to Jesus separating himself from his earthly family and establishing the Church, God’s family, there were other intentions Jesus had in communicating the way He did. One of the reasons Jesus possibly did not get up and talk with his family members was to role model self-differentiation. He wanted his words to match his actions. “The right side of our brain doesn’t learn with words. It learns by imitation and practice. The identity center of the brain has a heavy concentration of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons reflect what they see.”  Being in relationship with Christ meant following and leaving family behind. “A disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Matt. 8:21-23. Jesus wanted the people around him to observe how he would respond to his family. He communicated the importance of hearing God’s words and making fellowship with other believers a priority.
With Christ’s alarming example of staying with fellow believers instead of attending to his family members, we can only imagine his followers’ attempts at processing this new way of looking at family. In Stephen Young’s book Micromessaging, Jesus’ communication can be described like this: “When we find ourselves thrown into a culture vastly different from our own, intellect meets reality, and we briefly go into culture shock.“ I believe this was the culture shock that Jesus intended the listeners to have. Jesus was introducing a different culture, the culture of the Kingdom. Friedman puts it simply, “The expression of self in a leader is what makes the evolution of community possible.” This new Church community was beginning to evolve because Jesus was able to distinguish himself as the Christ, no longer just Jesus of Nazareth.
In Mark 3:20-21 Jesus “entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “he is out of his mind.” Family conflict could have easily ensued, but instead you find Jesus talking to the crowds in parables. Conflict can “seduce leaders into thinking that the way to bring change is by exerting their will upon the family rather than by modifying its resistance through their own being and presence.” Jesus did not fall into the trap of exerting his will. His followers must have been in awe or bewilderment at his composure and non-reactivity.
Jesus’ words come like a lightning bolt with this question. “Who is my mother, who are my brothers?” I would rather hear Jesus’ kind words to Mary when he was on the cross, as he saw her and said, “Woman, here is your son.” John 19:26 Jesus was referring to his disciple John who was standing close to Mary. These words reflect a son’s love and desire to comfort his mother. Jesus’ mission set him apart and demanded not only self-differentiation but death on a cross. Self-differentiation is having a complete identity with the Father, requiring complete obedience to the Father.
I can relate to Brene Brown who gives a small example of self-differentiating from family when she chooses what values she wants to live by. She shares in her book Dare to Lead, “My two central values are faith and courage. I hated not circling ‘family.’ But as I dug in, I realized that while my family is the most important thing in my life, my commitment to them is fueled by my faith and courage.”  I must agree, not choosing family would be difficult for me. I want to continue to grow in “differentiation of self” because it “is vital to life’s survival and development.” It is vital to my relationship with Jesus and identifying with His family.
 Freidman, Edwin H., A Failure of Nerve, 2017, p.63
 Larsen, Dale & Sandy, Questions Jesus Asks, 2019, p.12
 Friedman, Edwin H., p.174
 Warner, Marcus, Jim Wilder, Rare Leadership, 2016,p.111
 Ibid. p.110
 Young, Stephen, Micromessaging, 2007, p.86
 Freidman, Edwin H., p.174
 Ibid. p.76
 Brown, Brene, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts, 2018, p.189
 Friedman, Edwin H., p.175