Proper 15, Year C
Luke 12:49-56 - link to NRSV text
This is a puzzling or even disturbing passage, and more so when taken out of context. I think it's important to let the shock of what Jesus is saying sink in as fully as possible before trying to resolve it.
Jesus is saying here that his mission will divide people from one another. Specifically, Jesus says that his mission will divide families, setting children against parents and parents against children.
So much for "family values." Why on earth would Jesus say such a thing?
I have a feeling that anyone who followed Jesus' ministry up until his crucifixion would have been forced to agree with Jesus on this point: his call did set parents against children and children against parents.
For starters, Jesus doesn't acknowledge blood kinship, the nuclear and extended family, as family at all. In Luke 8:19-21, Jesus is presented as turning away his mother and his brothers with the retort, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it." In Jesus' eyes, the only father to whom a son or daughter is accountable is a heavenly one (Luke 9:57-62, as I blogged about for Proper 8, Year C here. (I also highly recommend this Biblical Theology Bulletin article by S. Scott Bartchy on the subject of an earthly father's authority, or lack thereof, in Jesus' and Paul's teaching.) And check out Luke 18:28-30, which speaks clearly of those who have "left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God." Hard to interpret -- unless, that is, there were actually some people, commended by Jesus for it, who were leaving their parents, spouse, siblings, and children.
I think it's clear that Jesus meant this "call no one on earth 'father'" and "follow me, and let the dead bury the dead" stuff pretty literally. A good test of whether this is so would be to take a look at the canonical gospels and see whether you can find a single instance of Jesus suggesting that those he called needed their earthly father's permission or blessing to do anything, including abandoning fields or fishnets as well as family to follow him. Indeed, when someone called by Jesus asks to go back only to say goodbye to his family, Jesus says, "no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 8:62). St. Paul understood how radical this redefinition of "family" was -- you'll notice, for example, in his advice to unmarried Christians in 1 Corinthians 7 about whether and whom they should marry, Paul assumes that the prospective partners will make their own decision and stick to it -- despite that in the cultures Paul addressed, marriages would have been arranged between fathers of the prospective partners, and refusing to go along with the fathers' choice would have been seen by Jews as a clear violation of the commandment to "honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12), and by Greeks and Romans as a violation of the filial duty that all civilized people recognized.
Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens for a lot less. It's not surprising that Jesus had people agitating for his arrest and death by the time he reached Jerusalem, and we haven't even started looking at all of the ways that the kind of behavior Jesus advocates -- hanging out and eating with anyone, turning the other cheek rather than retaliating (as a real and honorable man would do) when struck -- would bring deep shame on the family of one of Jesus' followers.
So yes, Jesus' ministry could and did divide families, who just couldn't understand what the person they knew was doing in following someone who taught such shocking things. There wasn't much that was conventionally respectable about following Jesus, which is one reason, I think, that Jesus was known for attracting the marginalized.
Where's the good news in this -- especially for those of us who are, more or less, among the respectable? Where's the good news in this for those of us who have families that give us joy and love, families we have no wish to leave?
I think the Good News for us in this is that, dislocated from the constraints of forming and ordering families according to convention and duty, we are freed in our families to relate to one another for who we really are -- sisters and brothers in Christ, called as disciples. Freed from the constraints of solely or primarily identifying as our fathers' and mothers' children or our children's parents, we can order our family as a community centered in Christ. What if we saw our vocation in our relationships with parents, children, and siblings something along the lines of Ephesians 4:12-16 -- as equipping one another for maturity and ministry? What if we saw our families as sanctified and blessed not by legal status and community recognition, but by Jesus' presence as two or three gather? Could be interesting, and challenging, and empowering.
Thanks be to God!