Monday, July 02, 2007

Family Values

Read Luke 9:57-62

If I were to ask how many people reading this blog come from “normal” families, I would not be surprised if very few said they did. I for one, have two dads and 5 moms. I would also not be surprised if, though all of us may express ambivalence about the health of our familial relationships, few of us would deny their importance in our lives.

So it is jarring to hear Jesus’ harsh words about family. “Let the dead bury the dead,” he says to the wannabe follower who first want to attend to his father’s funeral.

When his own family came to see him and he said, “My brothers and my mother are those who do the will of God.” he seems to have been irritated at their interruption of his ministry, almost as if he was telling them to get in the queue.

His most startling comment of course 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.”

Far from being the advocate of family values, Jesus is the very antithesis.

I am indebted to Sarah and S. Scott Bartchy for helping me understand Jesus words.

In first century Mediterranean cultures, patriarchy was the dominating paradigm. In fact, in Roman culture, fathers held the power of life and death over their children. While fathers seldom used it, it was none-the-less a right of a father to execute his child. Women and children were completely subservient to the father of the house.

Both sons and daughters were under their father’s control as long as their father lived. This included all one’s major life decisions, like work, marriage and so on. A father could even order his child to divorce his/her spouse.

This power of the fathers was central to Roman society and even the Emperor was called Father. Power was exercised through fathers. This patriarchal system was present in varying degrees and expressions throughout the Mediterranean.

Patriarchy is not just a system that oppresses women and in the ancient Roman world this was especially true. Domination was the means by which men advanced in society. They learnt to dominate in their homes and exercised the lessons learnt there in the broader society in which they operated. Men, while benefiting from the system, were also victims of it. Roman society, and most Mediterranean cultures of the time were highly stratified and hierarchical.

When the young man who wants to follow Jesus says he first needs to bury his father, he is not talking about an imminent funeral. Rather he is saying, first let me see to my duties as a son, for I will only be able to follow you when my father has died and I am no longer under his control.

Jesus words, therefore are not necessarily an attack on families as such, but rather an attack on patriarchy.

Read Mark 10:28-31

Notice that “fathers” are left out of the second list. Jesus’ ideal society will not have fathers. He calls us out of a society in which power is exercised unjustly through the system of patriarchy. The new society cannot therefore continue to have such a system.

Matthew 23:9 (NRSV): "Call no man father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven."

So, is Jesus anti-fathers? Surely not. He was a carpenter by the time he started his ministry and the only place he would have learnt this trade was from his own father as an apprentice. There must have at least some affection for his own dad. If Jesus had been anti-fathers, he would have had a hard time painting so convincing an image of God as Father if his own relationship with his father had been less than amicable.

In his prayer, the first two words describe the incredible intimacy he enjoyed with God, imagined as a paternal relationship: “Our Father…” (in Hebrew: “Daddy). But more than intimacy these words echo Jesus’ political attack on patriarchy. Our allegiance must be to one Father and no earthly system of domination exercised through fathers. Jesus opposed every form of injustice and was particularly careful about his relationships with women, such that he scandalized Jewish society.

What then is the appropriate relational attitude for Jesus followerstowards their own families?

Firstly, we recall that all people become our brothers and sisters by virtue of our common friendship and familial adoption into Jesus’ family. Every stranger is also family. And as much a family member as any blood relation.

Secondly, we are freed from duty in our relationships with family. We no longer have to relate to our family because society expects it of us. If our families are unhappy with the Jesus-choices we make, it is our allegiance to Jesus that comes first.

On the other hand, we are freed to love our family members. Jesus loves them and so we are called to love them. We are freed from duty, freed to genuinely love (rather than pretend). That means, that even those family members we do not get on with, we are called to love. We are called to love our enemies, even if they happen to be family members.

Far from giving us an excuse to dismiss our families as no longer important in the Kingdom, Jesus words remind us that our families become the place it is often the hardest to love as Jesus loves. For many of us, we would rather do the minimum, do our duty; do that which is expected of us. Jesus wants us to love generously, as much as he loves.

Family relationships surely must remain important in our discipleship, even if this importance is placed in a new, broader context of familial loyalty to all God's children.

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