Proper 26, Year A
You may find this entry on Luke 12:49-56 and this one on Luke 9:51-62 helpful for this week's gospel passage as well. Those passages from Luke and this Sunday's gospel all address something that most preachers these days gloss over: the conflict between "family values" as exalted in our culture and the demands of Jesus' call upon his followers.
In our culture, it's hard to imagine a circumstance in which "s/he puts family first" could be anything other than a compliment, and the more one gives in to other pressures, the more one is expected to pay lip service to ideals exalting the nuclear family, and especially the relationship between children and parents.
I'm not saying that we actually DO put family first as a society. Our government pursues policies that make it harder for families – especially poorer families – to spend quality time together. Whatever advantages we imagine welfare-to-work policies might offer, the ones we've got mean that our most vulnerable children are least likely to have an adult at home after school who could listen to them, help them with their homework, and make sure they're safe. Wealthier families suffer too; because we've abandoned public schools in so many areas, upper-middle-class parents work harder and commute farther in great anxiety that just one thing going wrong might mean they can't make the mortgage payments on the ridiculously expensive home that entitles their children to go to a decent school.
But the more we make choices that put stress on families, the more we rationalize it with rhetoric about "family values," as if our problem was that we don't TALK highly or often enough about the nuclear family.
Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."
– Matthew 23:1-4
One problem with our talk about "family values" is that it's just that: TALK. Pontificating about the standards to which all families ought to rise makes us like the Pharisees and scribes Jesus condemns unless we act to lighten the burden for others rather than merely condemning those who don't rise to our ideal. Got a problem with out-of-wedlock births? Want to reduce abortions? There's a direct correlation between rising levels of education and reduced rates of both. Wagging fingers and punishing women or their doctors won't lighten the burden, but making sure that every neighborhood school is safe and provides quality education – and that every neighborhood in the world has a school that will receive all its children – will.
In other words, the message of this Sunday's gospel takes us back to last week's. Loving our neighbors – in poor rural counties, in our cities, and around the world – as we love our selves and our own families is not an interesting hobby to fill our spare time while we wait for a "second coming" in which most of them will be destroyed. Loving our neighbors, advocating and caring for children around the world as we would for our own children, is equal in importance to loving God; our love, lived out in action to ease others' burdens, is what determines whether our lofty speech condemns us as hypocrites or challenges us as disciples.
Here's another way of looking at it: All of that lofty rhetoric about what God intends for marriages means less than nothing if our marriages don't focus us on and empower us for what God intends for the world. If our marriages and our families make us focus solely or even first on the welfare of our own household, if our "family values" mean that we will value what helps our own family get ahead and neglect what will further God's justice in the world, we are no better than the false prophets Micah condemns, who "cry 'Peace' when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths" (Micah 3:5). God does not value our families based on what ceremonies we did or didn't have or whether we have children, how many, and when. God values our families as God values all communities: on the extent to which they seek first God's kingdom, the extending of God's justice in the world (Matthew 6:33). It's the extent to which we do that without regard to our perception of who is friend or enemy, righteous or unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-48). And it's the extent to which we do that without regard to blood ties, who is our child, our mother, our brother.
That last point is a particular focus of this Sunday's gospel in its command – one of Jesus' most-often ignored – to "call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). It's one of Jesus' most radical statements. In it, Jesus releases his followers from one of the commandments that self-identified Christians have agitated to have posted in U.S. courtrooms and classrooms, namely, "honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12).
That's shocking, I know – so shocking that I'd wager that more time and energy has been spent arguing that Jesus didn't really mean it than teaching how upholding it can actually come as Good News for all of us.
I've heard a great many of these attempts at interpretive yoga, and I haven't seen one that works; Jesus' teaching on this point is just too clear and consistent across his career as reported in the canonical gospels. Paul understood this, and that's why in all of his advice to women and men about whether they should marry and whom – advice given in cultures in which marriages were arranged by fathers, not chosen by bride and groom – he never once suggested that they ought to get their fathers' permission, or even ask his opinion. Why would a Christian need a father's permission, if Jesus taught that Christians are not to recognize any father on earth, but only God?
The bottom line for Paul, as for Jesus, is that none of us should be treated a certain way in Christian community because of blood ties. ALL of our relationships are defined first, last, and always by our relationship as children of one God. In other words, all of us – parents and children of every nation and economic status – are sisters and brothers.
We do not honor one another on the basis of who was born to whom and in what order. We honor the poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted; we honor those who hunger and thirst for God's justice and who make peace in the world. Every elder who works for peace, the smallest child who longs for justice, is to be respected and lauded as the most dutiful child respects and lauds a parent. As counter-cultural as that is – as counter-intuitive as that is when we fail to sift cultural presuppositions through Jesus' teaching and example – it will come more naturally to us as we receive deeply the truth that we all are God's children, and as we seek and serve the image of Christ our mother (to use an image from Julian of Norwich) and our brother (to use St. Paul's image) in each of our sisters and brothers. As we live into that call, may God grant us the vision to recognize in every girl and boy, every woman and man, "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh," bound together by God's grace in relationships ordered completely and solely by God's love.
Thanks be to God!
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The expansive and generous view of God's family that Jesus teaches does good for everyone including the nuclear family
which was not alien to Jesus' own experience. We know from the Gospels he has brothers and sisters. As the oldest, trained
as a carpenter he was likely the head of a nuclear family after Joseph died and for several years before his public ministry
started at age thirty. The wandering teacher and healer is his life for only a few of his 33 years. He would have known the strengths and weaknesses of the family of bloodlines only. His critique has more impact in this context. Yet he did not forget.. Calling John to care for his mother from the cross and speaking in terms of deep friendship and intimacy in John's
Gospel before his departure in terms that expands the best of family rather than demeaning it. A people called to be a "light
to the nations" had its clanishness challenged for centuries..no suprise here.
Its not about sociology in the end..We are
fundamentally spiritual beings..that changes
Posted by: Steven Hagerman | Oct 26, 2005 7:30:32 PM
thanks dylan - specially good post this week! I wrote some bible notes on genesis this week, about Joseph saving Egypt from famine, and made similar connections about care for your own family and care for the big wide world being part of the same calling, not prioritised callings.
thank I'll be quoting you sunday a.m!
Posted by: maggi | Oct 27, 2005 8:08:55 AM
I just stumbled onto your blog, and I'm really digging this post--now I want to go back and read the previous 25!
Posted by: Brian | Oct 27, 2005 4:38:03 PM
In our adult Christian education forum this year, I have been concentrating on discussions of what the readings for the week ask us to do outside the walls of our parish church.
This is lovely, thank you, and will be grist for the mill this coming Sunday.
Posted by: Bill | Oct 28, 2005 8:49:21 AM
Wonderful thoughts! I will be preaching as part of a local church's Children's Sabbath on Sunday, and found much substance here.
Posted by: Becky | Oct 28, 2005 2:38:25 PM
Powerful comments. Thank you.
One question nags at me. I have trouble finding the demarcation between this seemingly clear teaching of Jesus, which you expound very well as ultimately a demaqnd for universal sharing, and Jesus' similarly powerful condemnation of those who say "corban" and so refuse to help parents [Mark 7:11]. Do you think the issue there is obedience to God? Or perhaps it is selfish hypocrisy, keeping for private use, not actually giving it to the temple/synagogue/church as claimed?
I'd appreciate any comments to help me sort this out.
Posted by: zeke | Oct 29, 2005 11:24:53 AM
Quite the wonderful post. Thanks!
Posted by: Popeye | Oct 29, 2005 10:15:04 PM
When I speak,I teach in the hope that others will try to do what I say, even if sometimes struggle with it. And remind them that not only is their case that we need to try this stuff, putting in danger the life that is not true, try again and never give up.
Posted by: גני אירועים בשרון | Mar 29, 2011 3:27:06 AM