The Wisdom of Difference among the Disciples of Christ

Keisha E. McKenzie


“And he ordained twelve, that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, And to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils: And Simon he surnamed Peter; And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder: And Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot, And Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him: and they went into an house. And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread… There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.” —Mark 3:14-20, 31-35

All three of the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, contain a few, well-placed lists that it’s tempting to skip past.

In Mark 3, Jesus is introducing himself to Judaea’s demon-possessed and scribes. The multitude presses in to see him, and his relatives demand he come out to meet them. That’s when Mark throws up a “Take Five” sign and lists some of his disciples, including some characters he has already described. Matthew and Luke also list Jesus’s ancestors: Matthew follows the line from Abraham and David by way of Ruth and Bathsheba to Joseph, while Luke tracks backward all the way to “Adam, [who] was of God.”

The gospel writers often discuss the disciples as a bloc: they are the group that doesn’t grasp Jesus’ stories, or that cannot correctly identify his role in history, or that falls into a post-dinner nap during his final prayer meeting. We don’t have many details about the disciples’ private meetings, though. If we did, we might know more about how Jesus the Master Teacher managed his diverse inner circle—not just the named twelve and Lazarus whom he loved, but also the women who funded and fed the group as it journeyed around the region—Mary the Magdalene, Susanna, Joanna, Mary, and Martha. [i]

Had the gospel writers thought to make this part of the early believers’ story explicit, we’d now have the scoop on how Jesus navigated the disciples’ latent power dynamics: just how did he inspire a large group of strong-opinioned people to get along and learn together without once resorting to homicide?

“There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, ‘Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.’ And he answered them, saying, ‘Who is my mother, or my brethren?’ And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, ‘Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.’”

From the very start, Jesus took his group of friends, and before he instructed them as delegates of his kingdom, he called them his family: Jesus made siblings out of Joanna, Levi, Simon, and Judas Iscariot. Whereas we often say, “Blood is thicker than water,” Jesus lived the saying, “God that made the world and all things therein… hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” [ii] From the perspective of the Creator, even as our times and locations vary, we share the same root. It’s our root, our “one blood,” that determines our value.

And yet we’re so very different too.

A civil servant’s wife, a tax collector, a Zealot, and an assassin start the Reign of God on Earth.

According to Josephus, Zealots were a group of Jews who were aligned with the Pharisees, resented Roman occupation, valued the observance of Moses’ law, resisted Caesar’s deification, and felt called to get the Romans out of the Promised Land by any means necessary. The Sicarii, anti-imperialists even more violent than the Zealots, murdered both Romans and Jews to protest occupation and warn would- be collaborators to support the resistance. Several sources link Judas to this group: either he was a member himself or his father was, and we now know him by the Sicarii’s name as well as by his own.

The very same “family” that contained Simon and Judas also contained a tax collector and the spouse of the man who ran King Herod’s household. At that time, tax collectors like Levi (Matthew) were considered national traitors. Their job was to ensure that the occupied people paid their dues to Caesar, Herod, and the empire’s men in the Temple, and many of them combined greed with power in ways that guaranteed hate and distrust. Similarly, there’s no one more complicit with corrupt colonialism than those who tend house for the colonial governor. Running the governor’s home was the family business that brought Joanna her wealth.

If we ever need motivation to get over our ethnic, political, theological, gender-related, or sexuality- based biases, power imbalances, and wholly unnecessary conflicts, we should be able to find it in Jesus’s example of heterogeneity here.

Someone who knows everything doesn’t need more perspectives or more humility. But Jesus modeled the practice of both.

The praise hymn in Philippians 2 tells us that God emptied Godself, and in humility took on the embodied, particular, time-bound, enculturated experience of being a young, male, Jewish human who grew, taught, healed, and died under the gaze of a repressive, imperial, pre-industrial military force. [iii]

Then, as today, being fully embodied means being located in time and space and being unable to wholly escape either of them. It means being gendered, sexed, and rooted in one’s socio-cultural contexts— ethnicities, class, religion, sect, and language groups. Incarnation literally limits one’s perspective.

The best way for me to illustrate this limiting is to recommend browsing the Scale of the Universe visualization site. As you click through the Scale, imagine nearly the entire visible universe being pushed into the indistinct distance: only patches of your surroundings remain perceptible to you. We can directly perceive 2-12 miles around us depending on the weather and an unobstructed view, and we can’t see anything smaller than a human egg without help from technology. Not much is closer to our eyes than the mirrors we use to look at ourselves, and yet we still “see through a glass darkly.”

In and through this embodied life, then, we don’t perceive much on our own. Fortunately, we don’t have to try.

The single best way to counter the limits of private perspective is to initiate and maintain active, learning relationships with a heterogeneous group of peers. That is what the disciples were to the incarnate Lord. It’s also what we can be for each other.

Our groups, our churches, our friendships, and relationships are all opportunities for us to practice perceiving the world with one another. We practice giving and receiving and building on a multiplicity of perceptions and experiences as we sit around the common table that our Master Teacher has called each of us to join.

We share our perceptions and experiences—the world as we can best sense it from wherever in life we stand—not so that we can draw over the rainbows of creation with one, two, or three approved colors and blot out the rest. We share with each other, muddling through incomprehension and misunderstanding, so that out of the diversity of every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, the fullest and complex image of God can finally be seen through all of us, God’s very own. “We, too, are His offspring.”

Libraries could be written about the challenges and pitfalls involved in being part of a heterogeneous group. But perhaps for now it’s enough to recognize that Christ seeded heterogeneous community in this world during his lifetime, and it wasn’t an idealistic error; it was an act of wisdom.

  1. How much of your holiday time did you spend with people from your family of origin or chosen families? Which views of the world do you share with those people?
  2. How much of your holiday time did you spend in heterogeneous spaces? What kinds of differences became obvious to you as you observed and talked with others?
  3. Think of the most challenging difference you’ve encountered in the last month. What, if anything, does that Other teach you about the universe you share? What, if anything, might you have taught that other person through your life or views?


i Luke 8:1-3 “And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.” “Substance” here means possessions or wealth.
ii Acts 17: 24-28. Paul uses Greek poetry and philosophy to introduce the Athenians to God and Christ.
iii Philippians 2:5-11: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”