“Who is My Mother?” Family, Nation, Discipleship, and Debates on Immigration

Michael L. Budde
DePaul University

He was still speaking to the crowds when suddenly his mother and his brothers were standing outside and were anxious to have a word with him. But to the man who told him this Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Any one who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” – Matthew 12:46-50


With an assignment to begin reasoning scripturally on “Resident Aliens and the Ethics of Immigration,” many starting points present themselves. At a minimum, it seems apparent that “resident alien” status requires knowing how to be a good host and a good guest; it also presumes knowing who’s the host, who’s the guest, and who’s responsible for what.

Christians in wealthy countries have all too easily assumed that, for the most part, these are “their” countries, that they are the powerful hosts who are called upon to act benevolently toward the importunate. But what if Christians somehow relaxed the assumption that these are “our” countries, or that “our” country is our prime residence, or that national identity is the natural and logical manifestation of our earthly loyalties and allegiance – one that rests comfortably alongside that derived from membership in the worldwide body of Christ?

Notions of nationhood in general, and calls for exclusion in particular, at a deep level make strong assumptions concerning commonality, relatedness, and obligation. The civic republican tradition of nation characteristically prides itself on being different – and hence superior to – more ethnically rooted notions of political community. For the former, commonality, relatedness, and obligation are the fruits of shared commitments to democracy, liberalism, and the virtues of participation; for the latter, commonality, relatedness, and obligation are the products of more primordial ties of kinship, ethnicity, and cultural bonds.

As several scholars note, [1] the lines separating these traditions of analysis have always been more visible in the abstract than on the ground in advanced industrial societies. The European Union, for example, holds in an unstable balance ethnic-based notions of citizenship derived from Germany and purportedly more republican perspectives from France; in recent years, both positions have bent in reaction to one another and to the imperatives of EU expansion (toward the East) and exclusion (from the South).

Political discourse in the United States has exhibited comparable tensions over the years, with republican and communal notions of commonality, relatedness, and obligation complementing or competing with one another. Despite the aspirations of republican voices, for whom “being an American” should remain open to whoever embraces the tenets of the American experiment, current debates are deeply infused with notions of political community as a natural entity whose integrity, stability, and sustainability are primary considerations. Republican notions inhabit metaphors strongly associational in character – citizenship, participation, and “those yearning to be free” – but all the while such metaphors construct a world in which power is held by familial notions of belonging.

Many American commentators have noted the emotional depth and dangers attendant to national discourse built upon notions of family and nation, expressed in terms such as “fatherland” or “motherland.” Mothers and fathers, of course, derive their roles from establishing a home – and we are now neck-deep in the language of home in these matters – from “Homeland Security” to “domestic surveillance” and securing our “backyard,” even reaching back nostalgically to celebrate earlier “bands of brothers” who protected the people from outside peril.

In this essay, I hope to offer a Christian contribution to matters related to migration, borders, and nationalism by reasoning scripturally on the question of “the family.” My contention is that policy and popular discourse on immigration, especially but not exclusively in its exclusionary expressions, presupposes a deep commitment to the notion of nation as family, of one’s country as being like a family that defines the nature and limits of commonality, relatedness, and obligation. [2] While much well-intentioned religious activism employs scriptural proof-texting as ammunition in immigration policy debates, a more important – but perhaps more subversive – function may be to destabilize the presumed status of the family held dear both by restrictionists (protect the homeland) and advocates of more open-entry policies (based on the equal dignity of the “human family”). I hope to do this with an exploration of the family in the Gospel of Matthew.

Against Family Values

When one enters the world of Matthew looking for insights into Jesus and the family, two things become apparent: there’s a lot of material to consider, and one can never again accept the notion of Jesus as being “pro-family” in any conventional sense of the term. That the Church has allowed itself to be seen as a defender of “family values” becomes, after a close reading of Matthew, one more instance of Christianity’s attempt to hide its radical origins and trajectory. Given Matthew’s deep engagement with the Judaism of the Jesus movement, the evangelist’s subversion of the family may have implications for Jewish and Muslim reflections as well. Given what follows, it is perhaps ironic that Matthew begins by establishing the familial bona fides of Jesus (1:1-17). He also gives us much detail about the Holy Family before, during, and after the birth of Jesus (e.g., 1:18-25; 2:10-15; 2:19-23). [3] John the Baptist throws the first stone at the presumed privilege of the family and lineage (3:8-10); the Spirit of God claims Jesus as his Son during Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan (3:16-17); the devil himself first calls Jesus the Son of God (4:3); and Jesus first refers to God as his Father in teaching his disciples how to pray, giving them the “Our Father,” or the Lord’s Prayer (6:9-13). While family language abounds, none of it prepares the reader for what is to come. Matthew gives a clue that something is off-kilter (8:21-22) when he puts following Jesus above the sacred obligation to bury one’s own father; it is significant that this response is to a question asked by a disciple, not just anyone, for it is the category of discipleship that Matthew’s Jesus places over against and above the natural primacy of the family. In doing so, he lays dynamite at the foundation of the social order for then as well as now — a move that persons inside and outside the Church have attempted to reverse ever since.

Most readers of Matthew identify the Sermon on the Mount, which includes the Beatitudes and other directives, as the part of the drama with the most radical implications. I suggest that other sections are similarly charged for those with eyes to see; these involve giving primacy to discipleship in matters of commonality, relatedness, and obligation, with a dramatic reduction in power to the family and (by extension) other primordial, “natural,” and self-evident identities and communities. When Jesus takes on the biological family in the name of discipleship, he also shakes the “extended family” of the national state for Christians seeking to follow Jesus.

Matthew’s tenth chapter instructs the apostles on their mission, authority, and calling. Jesus also warns them of the obstacles that await them, and the persecution that will greet them as a consequence of following him. Such will not be random in its sources, says Jesus; rather, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will come forward against their parents and have them put to death” (10:21). Later in that chapter, Matthew’s Jesus harkens back to Micah (7:6) in identifying the family as a prime obstacle to the gospel. I wish everyone who has ever built a ministry, political program, or media empire on the claim that Christianity is “pro-family” would wear this bit of Matthew around their necks (Matt. 10:34-39):

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword. For I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law; a person’s enemies will be members of his own household.

No one who prefers father or mother to me is worthy of me. No one who prefers son or daughter to me is worthy of me. Anyone who does not take his cross and follow in my footsteps is not worthy of me. Anyone who finds his life will lose it; anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.

The family opposes discipleship in many ways, as Matthew and the other evangelists warn. It tempts one toward privileging blood relatives over all else, puts protecting family respectability and reputation above proclaiming the gospel, and counsels realism, practicality, and the safe path over the Way that may lead to exclusion, suffering, and, possibly, martyrdom.

Matthew gives us ample evidence that the conflict between Jesus and family was well recognized in the narrative itself. He returns to his hometown to teach in the temple, but instead of a hero’s welcome he meets rejection.

[The people asked] “Where did the man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? This is the carpenter’s son, surely? Is not his mother the woman called Mary, and his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Jude? His sisters, too, are they not all here with us? So where did this man get it all?” And they would not accept him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is despised only in his own country and in his own house,” and he did not work many miracles there because of their lack of faith. (13:54-58)

Matthew demonstrates still another disconnect between discipleship and family loyalty when Jesus criticizes the mother of Zebedee’s sons for doing what all mothers everywhere and at all times have done – namely, looking out for the welfare of their children, in this case trying to help them get a leg up in their career:

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came with her sons to make a request of him, and bowed low; and he said to her, “What is it you want?” She said to him, “Promise that these two sons of mine may sit one at your right hand and the other at your left in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They replied, “We can.” He said to them, “Very well; you shall drink my cup; but as for seats at my right hand and my left, these are not mine to grant; they belong to those to whom they have been allotted by my Father.” (20:20-23)

Jesus does not stop here. In fact, he uses his destabilizing of family primacy to call into question other natural roles, allegiances, and responsibilities:

When the other ten heard this they were indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that among the Gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt. Among you this is not to happen. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (20:24-28)

In other words, followers of Jesus must prioritize being a disciple over being a good family person; additionally, this “being a disciple” may also render them unsuitable for exercising power in the secular realm. How can a disciple serve as a ruler, or even as a functionary in the ruler’s apparatus, with Jesus’ notion of legitimate and illegitimate power and its exercise? However much worldly power cloaks itself in the soft language of service, its institutions (consider the modern state and modern capitalism) presume the indispensability of the sort of power that Jesus calls upon his disciples to abjure.

Family and the Nation as Home

Matthew’s narratives on the family ought to make one forever suspicious of any sort of theology that privileges so-called “natural” institutions – the family, states, and the like – as among the self-evident goods to be embraced and celebrated by the Church. Doing so has led to a host of developments throughout Christian history at odds with the call to discipleship, developments that have placed other identities and allegiances above those a Christian accepts at baptism into the community called to be herald and foretaste of the Kingdom of God. Inasmuch as the nation is among these “natural” entities presumed to be good and valuable in and of themselves – and insofar as notions of natural community, cohesiveness, and identity underwrite much mainstream debate on borders and movement – then Matthew’s assaults on the family may have something to say in reframing the entire question for Christians and other interested people. If the family, as an intricate and tangible source of identity, has any value – to the extent that it serves the cause of discipleship – how much less claim on Christian practices of commonality, relatedness, and obligation should the modern nation-state enjoy?

If notions of citizenship based upon “natural” affinities and nation-as-family are undermined by this reading of discipleship, what of the civic republican tradition of commonality, obligation, and relatedness? With its roots in Aristotle, the civic republican tradition puts the polis above the family (unlike the ethnic-nationalist tradition, which sees the nation as the family writ large). My contention is that while Christian discipleship agrees that family is subordinated to polity, it disagrees with the Greeks on what the true polity is: it is not the state but the community of disciples called “the Church.” Being a Christian ought to be the fundamental category of membership – constraining and disciplining followers of Jesus concerning civic claims of commonality, obligation, and relatedness.

Some Implications

In a culture that all too quickly collapses public discourse into public policy – what should the state do – it is not clear what implications, if any, flow from this sort of reading of Matthew and the family. However, we should not be troubled if this approach provides no immediate guidance to policymakers. In my view, it is better if reading Matthew results in offering alternative starting points for discussions concerning Christians and their fellow seekers after God’s truth.

If pressed, a few policy-related matters might derive from the reading of Matthew presented here:

      1. One should consider de-emphasizing “citizenship” as the goal or prize to be won in order to be seen as a full member of “the nation” or “community.” The blessing of God as conveyed through Jesus cannot be contained by the borders of polity or ethnicity: see, for example, the daughter of the Canaanite woman healed despite being a non-Israelite “dog” (15:21-28) as well as the centurion whose faith surpassed that of Israel so much that Jesus exclaimed that “many will come from east to west and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast in the kingdom of Heaven” (8:5-13). Of course, when the kingdom of Heaven does arrive, with divine judgment upon “all nations” (the nations do not judge the church, the saints, or their own conduct – they are not sovereign), the tests do not come with checks for passports, papers, or loyalty oaths: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me (25:36-7).Citizenship should be de-emphasized as the ultimate good because of the idolatry implicit in the concept. It is not at all clear, for example, that a Christian whose discipleship joins him or her to the worldwide body of Christ could take the U.S. Citizenship oath in good conscience – especially if he or she is a Christian pacifist (or rigorous just-war proponent) in a mainline Protestant or Catholic community. Nor should Christians look approvingly upon those shortcuts to citizenship offered by state policies that allow immigrants to “prove” their loyalty to the state by killing and dying in the military.
      2. Perhaps Christians should dare to raise the prospect of open immigration as something worth exploring. [4] While such a policy stance has little chance of adoption in my lifetime, raising it as a real possibility might have an educative function for the following reason: The hubris of empire is that it demands to be welcomed as a resident alien, and increasingly as a citizen, anywhere in the world, while denying reciprocity to whomever it chooses. Under the present capitalist dispensation, the United States demands the right to exclude labor even as it punishes countries that would presume to keep out American capital. For the textbook picture of world economics to have even a ghost of a chance of working (I find the textbook picture unpersuasive, but that is for another time), one must have full factor mobility, so that labor and capital can move efficiently and smoothly to areas of maximal return and benefit. Demanding it for capital while denying it for labor is the most blatant form of a rigged game, where the rules are stacked against working people in favor of those who live off the past labor that we call capital investment. Were Christians to call for open movement instead of restrictions on human flows, the hypocrisy of the existing order might usefully be brought into view in ways presently obscured by the disjointed nature of public discourse on capital liberalization and labor/human restriction.
      3. Another set of policies, ecclesial more than governmental, may emerge from taking seriously the aforementioned transnational nature of the church: the church being a more universal “polity” against which nations and states look positively sectarian, parochial, and tribal. When Catholic clergy and leaders in Mexico help undocumented people to cross into the United States, fleeing starvation or oppression, why should fellow Christians ignore their pleas for help in the name of Christian solidarity? When a woman driven by desperation attempts a desert crossing, protected by not much more than a picture of Saint Toribio Romo, patron saint of migrants, should Christians hand her body over to the state in the name of civic republicanism or national community? I think not; I think a casual but consistent disregard for the imperatives of state may be the order of the day for those whose sense of commonality, relatedness, and obligation is neither familial nor civic, but ecclesial – which, itself, is sealed in the Resurrection as a criminal offense against Roman law (Matt. 27: 63-66) as well as the border between the dead and the living.


[1] See, for example, Anthony Marx, Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism, Oxford University Press (London, 2003).
[2] For a current example, see Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Simon and Schuster (New York, 2004).
[3] Even this lineage has some subversive elements, however: the women named are all irregular in some sense, either Gentiles or scandalous – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the Wife of Uriah.
[4] For a recent exploration of this notion, see Peter Laufer, Wetback Nation, Ivan Dee Publishers (2004).


Huntington, Samuel (2004). Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, Simon and Schuster (New York, 2004).

Laufer, Peter (2004). Wetback Nation, Ivan Dee Publishers (2004).

Marx, Anthony (2003). Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism, Oxford University Press (London, 2003).