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The Social Relationships of Jesus

Discovering Jesus: Part 3

Jirair Tashjian


In this series of studies we have been looking at Jesus in the world of his own time, that is, the human Jesus, the man of Galilee. We are certainly not denying his deity, but are wanting to know from the gospels how Jesus acted, what he said, what he did as a human being, and more specifically as a Jewish person living in Palestine in the first century AD. If we take the incarnation seriously, we have to consider Jesus as a real human being who was very much part of the world in which he lived.

In the previous section (Part 2: Jesus, Religion, and Politics) we considered the thesis that Jesus was not politically neutral. The kingdom of God in the life and message of Jesus had political implications that ultimately led to his violent death. The politics of Jesus was different from politics as usual. It meant servanthood for him and for his followers. "The first will be last and the last first," Jesus said (Mk 10:31). People did perceive political implications in what Jesus said and did. No wonder that Herod wanted to kill him, and Pilate finally decided to get rid of him.

Here, we will continue with that general theme, except that we are going to move specifically to the social relationships of Jesus. How well did Jesus fit in the social world of his time? How did he view the social institutions of his day? How did he respond to social boundaries that existed in his culture?

First, though, let’s make sure we understand the topic. What exactly are "social institutions" or "social boundaries"? This simply means the way people organize themselves into groups. For example, who is a family member and who is not? Who belongs to a group and who doesn’t? Who is in and who is out? How do we draw the boundaries? Who belongs to us and who doesn’t? With whom can we associate and with whom can we not associate? Who can be invited to our house for dinner and who can’t be invited? These are social questions. And it seems that Jesus continually forced people to think about these sorts of questions by the way he lived and the way he spoke.

In fact, I’ll even go a step further and be bold enough to say that the actions and words of Jesus were socially disruptive and that some people considered Jesus socially offensive. Jesus challenged the social boundaries that people had constructed. So in that sense Jesus was a social misfit. He did not accept the social assumptions with which most people of his day operated. He did not accept the social institutions of the day on face value. For example, what was his attitude toward the institution of the family, what we might today call family values? What did he think about purity laws? Who is pure and who is not? Who can be touched and who can’t be touched? What about the social institution of Sabbath observance? What can be done, what can’t be done on the Sabbath? What about gender distinctions? How do men and women fit in the social world? What is acceptable and what is not acceptable conduct? Jesus was constantly challenging the assumptions that people had made in relation to these questions.

Social Events in the Life of Jesus

Let’s take a look at several social events in the life of Jesus that will illustrate what I mean. Luke, more than the other gospels, has given us a number of stories along these lines.

In Luke 7 Jesus paid high compliments to John the Baptist and then proceeded to rebuke the people of that generation. He compared them to children who did not want to participate in any game that other children in the marketplace wanted to play, whether it is a wedding dance or a funeral dirge. In the same way, Jesus said, the people of that generation were hard to please. "For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’" (Luke 7:33-34). Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He went to dinner parties, but according to his critics it was not with "acceptable" people. He ate with "tax collectors and sinners," that is, with social, moral, and religious outcasts (Matt 9:10; Luke 15:1-2). When questioned by the chief priests and religious leaders for his disruptive conduct at the Temple, he said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you" (Matt 21:31).

On the other hand, Jesus apparently accepted dinner invitations from Pharisees, the very people who were so critical of Jesus for his associations with the wrong crowd. Jesus apparently could just as easily be in the company of a Pharisee as with a despised outcast. On one occasion Jesus was at a banquet at the home of a Pharisee by the name Simon (Luke 7:36-50). We can safely assume from the social customs of the day that only men were at the table. A woman with an alabaster jar of ointment came into the room to Jesus. Luke deftly describes her as "a woman in the city, who was a sinner," implying that she may have been a prostitute. She stood behind Jesus, bathed his feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

It could not have been much more repulsive than this for the Pharisee. This was a woman of questionable character, who has unashamedly barged into a group of men at dinner. Her hair was down, which indicates that she is a prostitute. Not only that, she is caressing and kissing the feet of Jesus. Even though she was weeping, perhaps out of remorse as well as embarrassment for intruding into this male gathering, the Pharisee interprets all of this show of affection as seduction and is thinking, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner." 

Jesus sensed what Simon was thinking and proceeded to tell him a parable. "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."  (Lk 7:36-47)

Simon had apparently dispensed with the common courtesies that a host was expected to show a guest. It seems that Simon had invited Jesus with some reservations, to find out what sort of teacher he was. Jesus was on probation, and therefore not worthy of the customary foot-washing, greeting with a kiss, and anointing with ointment.

Jesus then turned to the woman and says, "Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Lk 7:48).  In this incident Jesus has challenged the social boundaries that had been put in place by Pharisees and others in first-century Palestine in a couple of ways. First, Jesus redefined the place of women in society. He treated a woman with the same dignity as a man. In fact, in the very next paragraph in Luke’s account (8:1-3) we read of several women who were among his followers and had even provided financial support for Jesus and his group. Imagine women providing support to a group of men in a patriarchal society!

Another way that Jesus challenged social boundaries in this story has to do with holiness or purity laws. Simon was scandalized that this sinful woman was touching Jesus’ feet without receiving a reprimand from Jesus. How could a holy prophet allow such a filthy woman to touch him? Instead of putting her in her place, Jesus even commended her for her public demonstration of love and offered her forgiveness, salvation, and peace.  In doing so, Jesus placed relationships between people above ceremonial laws governing what and who was "unclean."

Not only did Jesus challenge gender boundaries, but he also went against the norm of racial boundaries. In John 4 Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman and asked for a drink. She had two things working against her: she was not only a woman, but also a Samaritan. Because of some past history, Jews and Samaritans had no dealings with each other for centuries. Even she herself was surprised that he, a Jewish man, would speak to her, a woman of Samaria, in broad daylight at the public well.  When the disciples returned from purchasing food, they too were surprised that Jesus was speaking to a Samaritan woman.

One of the most powerful parables of Jesus is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). Most people today think that being a Good Samaritan is a wonderful quality, helping someone that has been hurt and stranded, and it is of course an admirable quality. But the power of this parable lies in the fact that Jesus presents a Samaritan as a model of neighborliness in answer to a Jewish theologian’s question, "Who is my neighbor?" A Samaritan who is looked down on by Jews Jesus held up as a model of proper response to others in the name of God. From a first-century Jewish perspective, it could not have been much more offensive than that. Again, Jesus challenged the racial divisions of his day.

The social life of Jesus did not fit the norm. People were scandalized by his behavior. Consider what it must have looked like for Jesus to lead the kind of life he did. Here is a man who did not settle down in a place, hold down a job, and become a productive, responsible person in his town. Instead, he was always on the move, surrounded by nobodies who had also quit their jobs and were roaming hither and yon. They were even being supported by women! I wonder what Peter’s wife and his mother-in-law thought about Peter quitting his fishing business in Capernaum to follow this man from Nazareth. What did his neighbors think? Who was this shiftless Nazarene who didn’t seem to have much to do with his own townspeople and instead spent time in lonely places praying or teaching a nondescript crowd. He even said, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). Well, if he would hold down a job, he would have a place!

We often fail to understand the social dimension of the message of Jesus about the kingdom of God. The message of Jesus was not simply to restore our broken relationship with God. Most of his message had to do with healing the broken relationships among people who have been separated from each other because of artificial lines of demarcation based on gender, race and religion.

Family Relationships

In Jewish life the family held a very important place. It was of course a patriarchal society with the father holding the place of authority and power. In a social context like that, some of the most radical statements that Jesus made had to do with family relationships. Here are a few examples that have survived in the gospel tradition.

On one occasion Jesus told someone to follow him. The man said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus replied, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:60). In this scheme of things, what happens to family responsibility, particularly the supreme responsibility of burying one’s father?

Immediately after that dialogue we read about another man who said to Jesus, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). One can’t even take the time to say farewell to one’s family.

Perhaps the most radical saying of all concerning the family is this one: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). To use the language of our own time, Jesus does not seem to believe in family values!

These are indeed some of the most provocative sayings of Jesus. How can we make sense of such statements when they seem to attack the most basic social unit of civilization, the family? Is there anything that is even more basic than the family? Indeed there is, and it is the kingdom of God. Not even family loyalties must stand in the way of one’s commitment to the kingdom of God. At the heart of the message of Jesus was the kingdom of God. Everything else, even one’s own family, must take a secondary place. At times people may have to sacrifice their family relationships to fulfill the demands of discipleship in the kingdom of God. Jesus was not particularly dismantling the social unit of the family as such. He was using hyperbole or exaggerated language to ask prospective disciples, "What is your most important allegiance? Is it the kingdom of God or is it something else like your race, your tribe, your nation or your family?"

Jesus himself lived out the ethic of the kingdom of God that he demanded of his followers. We get some strong hints in Mark 3:20-35 that the relationship between Jesus and his biological family was not particularly congenial. A crowd had gathered around Jesus in a home, with the result that there was no time to eat. Mark tells us that "when his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’" (v. 21). We are not told in this verse which members of Jesus’ family came to restrain him. However, several verses later (v. 31) we are told that his mother and his brothers came and were standing outside. Even the mother of Jesus thought that her son had gone mad. Apparently the Gospel of Mark, the first gospel to be written, has no knowledge of the tradition about the circumstances of the virgin birth of Jesus that we find in Matthew and Luke.

Not only do the members of Jesus’ immediate family have negative feelings about Jesus, but also Jesus himself seemed to express less than warm feelings about his family. When he was told that his mother and brothers (and sisters, according to some manuscripts) were outside wanting to speak to him, he seemed to brush them aside and pointed to the crowd and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3:34-35).

The story of Jesus at the Temple at age twelve in Luke 2 may also be cited as evidence that even at this early age Jesus was beginning to distance himself from his family. Even though he did go with his parents back to Nazareth, was obedient to them, and increased in wisdom and in divine and human favor, there were things about Jesus that were puzzling to his mother. She reprimanded him when she said, "Child, why have you treated us like this?" When Jesus replied to his parents that he must be in his Father’s house, Luke comments that they did not understand what he said to them. There are subtle hints here and there that even at this early age not everything between Jesus and his parents was entirely on the positive side. Luke’s comment that his mother "treasured all these things in her heart" indicates that there were unresolved issues in her mind concerning Jesus.

What are we to make of such a portrait of Jesus and his family? We who value family life so highly might find these stories in the gospels a bit disconcerting, to say the least. We must nevertheless take seriously the fact that for Jesus the kingdom of God was the operative reality and that all other loyalties were secondary. Not only one’s family, but even one’s own life must be denied in order to experience the reality of the kingdom of God.

Religious Institutions and Practices

A significant part of a person’s social world is comprised of religious traditions, institutions, and practices. This was particularly so in the world of Jesus. In modern times we have divorced religion from other aspects of life. In American life we have celebrated the principle of the separation of church and state. Secularism is a phenomenon of modern life that would be inconceivable in ancient cultures, including the culture of first-century Judaism where Jesus was most at home. Divorcing one’s religious loyalties and commitments from one’s political, social, and economic life is a relatively modern phenomenon.

The religious world of Jesus was Judaism. His Bible was the Hebrew scriptures. For him the synagogue was the place of worship. The Sabbath was a day of worship at the synagogue. The God of Judaism was his God. To understand Jesus properly we must begin with the premise that he was a Jew. As Christians we have often thought of Jesus as the founder of a brand-new religion, Christianity or the Christian church. That is not quite what Jesus was up to. Before we say anything else about his disagreements and debates with other Jewish people of his time we must firmly establish in our minds the fact that Jesus lived, thought, and functioned within the parameters of Judaism.

Having said that, we can then begin to note that Jesus did raise some serious questions about the way that Judaism was being practiced. By the same token, however, we must also say that he would probably raise some equally serious questions about the way Christianity is practiced today. The debates in which Jesus engaged with various Jewish factions must not be thought of as a debate between Christianity and Judaism. Rather, his debates were all within the context of Judaism. Think of them as arguments within a family rather than a feud between two warring tribes. 

For example, Jesus observed the Sabbath, as is clear from the fact that on the Sabbath he was at the synagogue for worship (Mark 1:21). Nevertheless, the way he observed it did not suit everyone. When his disciples plucked heads of grain on the Sabbath as they were walking through grain fields, the Pharisees objected because that was considered work. Jesus replied, "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). Another objection of the Pharisees was that Jesus healed on the Sabbath even when there was no danger to life (Mark 3:1-6). The attitude of Jesus was that it was lawful to do good and to save life on the Sabbath. Thus it is not that Jesus disregarded the Sabbath; rather, he redefined what it meant to keep the Sabbath holy.

Another bone of contention between Jesus and others was how to define clean and unclean. Jesus touched people who were considered untouchable, people with leprosy, a hemorrhaging woman, dead persons, and brought healing and restored life to these individuals. The Pharisaic assumption was that the ritually unclean contaminated the clean. The assumption of Jesus was that the clean brought cleansing and healing to the unclean. In fact, Jesus operated with the notion that illness did not make a person unclean.

Another dispute that the Pharisees had with Jesus was about washing hands before a meal and washing food bought at the market before eating it. It should be noted that this was not a hygienic but a religious concern. Hands and food were ritually defiled and had to be cleansed in a religious ritual of purification. In his reply to his critics Jesus said, "There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile… For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come" (Mark 7:15, 21).

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had some things to say about such religious acts of piety as giving alms, praying, and fasting (Matt 6:1-18). Again, it was not that Jesus objected to these practices. He himself prayed and fasted (Matt 4:2), and he told his disciples to give to anyone who begs and not to hold back (Matt 5:42). What he objected to was the manner in which these practices were being carried on and their intention. Jesus said that these acts of piety must be done in secret in the presence of God rather than as an ostentatious showing off of one’s piety so others could see.


There are two ways to define holiness. The Pharisees defined holiness as separation: be separate, come out from among them, be different, don’t associate with the wrong crowd, don’t touch questionable people, don’t associate with them.

But there is a second way to define holiness, which is the way Jesus defined it, namely that holiness is perfect love. Jesus lived out this definition of holiness in his daily associations. Jesus summarized the Old Testament commandments as loving God with the whole heart, mind and strength and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. But who is my neighbor? Jesus was asked that question on one occasion, to which he replied by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Any human being who needs my help is my neighbor. It makes no difference who it is. Anyone is potentially my neighbor, including someone like a Samaritan, a socially ostracized person, or even a morally corrupt individual. So how did Jesus live out the life of holiness? By avoiding certain types of people? No! He lived out the life of holiness by reaching out to them with love and compassion. He identified with the outcasts. He sat with them. He accepted them without judging them. They felt that they were no longer nobodies, that God cared for them, that they were included in God’s invitation to the kingdom of God.

How are we going to define and live out the life of holiness today? Will we do it as the Pharisees? Or will we do it as Jesus did it?

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-Jirair Tashjian, Copyright © 2018, Jirair Tashjian
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