Giving Thanks for Family

Scriptures: Genesis 37:2-4, Matthew 10:34-39

The scripture reading from the gospel of Matthew is hard to take. Jesus is quoted as saying: "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household." (Mt. 10:34-36) Mt. 10:37 reports that Jesus also said: "He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." This is easier to accept than the teaching preceding it, but these words about the priorities of love don't cancel the harsh teaching attributed to Jesus about creating conflict in families — a teaching also found in Luke 12:51-53.

Did Jesus actually say this? We can't know, but clearly the first century church believed that he said this, and the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke believed it was important to communicate this teaching to the communities of faith reading these gospels. Weren't they appalled, as we are, by these words? Probably not. If we recall the context in which these gospels were written, we can identify at least two reasons why early Christians might have felt more comfortable with these readings than we do.

First, the church understood that Jesus was calling men and women to a new form of life, which seemed inevitably to mean a break with the traditions of their families. Obviously, some families resisted this change. Fathers and mothers would have discouraged or even tried to prevent their sons and daughters from joining a new community of faith that did not recognize the authority of parents over their children.

Those of us who are parents can easily identify with the parents of the first disciples, who left their families to join an itinerant preacher. There was no security or future in that. But if we were rebellious when we were younger, then we might also identify with the young people who left their families. Moreover, it is not hard to understand why the church would have valued a teaching that encouraged young people to break with the authority of their parents in order to be faithful to Jesus. This makes perfect sense, at least at first. Later, of course, the church would teach its Christian families that children should honor the authority of their Christian parents.

A second reason why first century Christians might have readily accepted this teaching is that they were expecting the end of the world. The ties and traditions of family life could well have seemed less important, if the Son of man was coming soon "in his glory" to pass judgment on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt. 25:31-46) Certainly, this was behind Paul's advice to the Christians in Corinth: "the appointed time is very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away." (1 Cor. 7:29-31)

There are other passages in the Bible, of course, which reflect a very different view of history and family life. The first (old) testament has many stories of families, because the story of peoples is a story of families and their extended relations. Not surprisingly, many of these stories concern family conflicts. One of the two children of Adam and Eve kills the other out of jealousy. Abraham has two sons, and they become the fathers of two different peoples. Isaac has two sons, and he favors one while his wife favors the other. Jacob has twelve sons, but favors Joseph; so, the other brothers take out their resentment against Joseph.

In contrast, there are few family stories in the second (new) testament, as the disciples leave their families behind. Furthermore, the family of Jesus is treated in an ambiguous manner. The gospels of Mark and Matthew note that Jesus has four brothers (James, Joses [Joseph in the gospel of Matthew], Judas, and Simon) and also more than one sister. The first two gospels report that the family of Jesus did not support his ministry (Mt. 13:53-58, Mk. 3:20-35, 6:1-6), but in three of the gospels his mother is present at his crucifixion (Mt. 27:56, Mk. 15:40, Jn. 19:20) and at the empty tomb. (Mt. 28:1, Mk. 16:1, Lk. 24:10) Acts records that the mother of Jesus and his brothers were in Jerusalem praying with the disciples immediately after the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension into heaven. (Acts 1:14)

It is not clear, therefore, that Jesus abandoned his family for his ministry, or that his family abandoned him because of his ministry. Mary, his mother, is given prominence in the birth story of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, and is identified in all the New Testament gospels and in Acts as being with him at the end of his ministry. The gospel of John reports that Jesus "went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples" (Jn. 2:12) and that his brothers were with him in Galilee during his ministry although they did not at that time believe in him. (Jn. 7:3-5) Moreover, James, the brother of Jesus, is recognized by both Paul (Gal. 1-2) and the author of Acts (Acts 15) as the head of the church in Jerusalem during the time of Paul's ministry. The early church attributed the New Testament "Letter of James" to this brother of Jesus, and the author of the New Testament "Letter of Jude" identifies himself as a brother of James (presumably this is James, the brother of Jesus). Jude is likely a variation of the name "Judas," who is identified in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 as a brother of Jesus.

We can't know whether or not the family of Jesus resisted his ministry, but certainly after the death and resurrection of Jesus his mother and at least two of his brothers supported the church. In the gospels, when Jesus refers to his followers as "my mother and brothers," (Mk. 3:34, Mt. 12:49, Lk. 8:21) he says he means, "whoever does the will of God." (Mk. 3:35, Mt. 12:50, Lk. 8:21) At the time the gospels were written, this would also have included his mother and at least two of his brothers.

Certainly in the early days of the church many families tried to prevent their loved ones (wives, husbands, children) from joining. So, we should not be surprised by the teaching that Jesus came to cause conflict in families. The teaching served well in the church to encourage new members to remain in the church, even though they were under pressure from their families to withdraw from the church and submit to the authority and traditions of their families.

Read together, these scripture passages suggest that from a Christian point of view the family is to serve the church and the church is to serve God. The church serves as the family of God, so those who join the church find their real family there. If a family does not give itself in service to the church, then the teachings of Jesus may well create conflict in that family.

I expect many of us have experienced conflict in our families, because of our involvement in the church. My father did not want me to become a minister, and most of my children do not regularly attend church. My four brothers-in-law do not attend church, and my father's second wife has children who are Catholic and Jewish. Not surprisingly, our family get-togethers on church holidays have often been complicated and not always comfortable. I know that some of you have similar experiences.

But even if all our relatives are Christian, our relationship to the church may nonetheless be problematic. The church is like a family, so our unresolved family issues are often played out within the life of a congregation. Perhaps some of you have found at church a family-like refuge, which your birth families for various reasons were unable to provide. Might some of you be living out in the life of this congregation unresolved issues with your birth families, or with your children or other relatives? We are very much who we are because of our families, and I would suggest that a greater awareness of how this may affect our involvement in the life of the church might be enlightening as well as helpful.

Are we really surprised that church life, like family life, is often intense and involves conflict? Our expectations for the church are high, higher than for our working relations or for our neighborhood — sometimes even higher than for our immediate families. After all, the church is supposed to be God's family, isn't it? Why should we expect less?

Of course, our expectations for the church are too high, but that's all right if we understand why. We are looking for a home. We want to know that we are loved, accepted and forgiven. We don't want to be alone. We want to belong. We want to belong to the family of God.

As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas, our two great family holidays, we need to be reminded that many with families will nonetheless be lonely during these holidays, and that those without families will surely miss them. For some, the church will serve as family. So, let us give thanks for family, whether we find it at home or in church. And let us strive to help those, who are without family at home, to find their family in the life of this church. Amen.

November 18, 2001 © Robert Traer 2016