Jesus’ Family Values*
One of the things that used to fascinate me, growing up in a large, close knit Dutch-German family, was the degree to which family gatherings were spent sequestering into small groups and talking about each other. How much great uncle was drinking, or grandma’s high blood pressure problem. This one’s recent trip to the doctor and another’s prolonged absence from church. Divorce, pregnancy, unemployment, myriad matters of family, church and state; I mean a five year old can learn a whole at such gatherings just by standing inconspicuously nearby.
But one of the family rules – both unspoken between the adults and occasionally re-affirmed for us young’uns – was that: We can talk about each other because, you know, we’re family. But if anyone else, someone outside the family, speaks ill about any one of us: well, then . . . watch out!
Because, you see, when we do it … we do it out of love!
It’s amazing how families will sometimes express their family values.
I remember leading an adult bible study on the Ten Commandments once. When we got up to the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill” [Ex. 20:13], there was widespread agreement that no one there could imagine taking another human life. “Unless, of course,” one young man added, “my family was being threatened. Then I probably would kill someone to defend them.” Again, there was consensus in the group.
Isn’t it amazing that the very same values that lead us to experience such love, can also move us to express such violence?
Which brings us to the subject of this campaign season.
During an election year, like this one, we tend to hear a lot of political rhetoric about `family values’; although opinions about just what those values should be are widely varied.
But candidates usually agree in blaming many of today’s social ills – gang violence, drug abuse, the rising crime and drop-out rates – on the lack of those `family values’. After all, if children don’t learn the values of responsibility and accountability, honesty and hard work, loyalty and faith while they’re growing up at home, where in the world will they learn them?
Generally speaking, that’s a low-risk argument for politicians to make on the campaign trail. Something pretty much everyone can agree on. Nothing very controversial about promoting family values. (Although I find it lamentable that the candidates themselves often do not model those values very well in their own behavior.)
But then there’s Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth,” he says. “No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Or as Mathew’s account puts it, “I come to bring a sword!”
“From now on five in one household will be split . . . father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law . . .”
Well, you get the picture.
The media would love Jesus. They have a heyday with public figures who say stuff like that. Especially religious types. It’s great for ratings.
It does not do much for public morale, however.
I guarantee that’s not the kind of rhetoric that’ll get you elected in this country. It’s the kind of speechifying that gets you crucified in the press and public opinion. It’s the kind of slip of the tongue that causes campaign managers to throw in the towel.
And for those of us who look to Jesus as the Gentle Shepherd – the One who turns the other cheek, the Prince of Peace who teaches us to love our enemies – those words fall hard, just like a sword, down upon the ears.
It’s the kind of stark commentary It’s the kind of lectionary passage that causes preachers to inwardly groan when they read it and keeps us up late at night trying to figure out how to mediate Jesus’ harsh words into a pleasant Sunday morning sermon (especially on his second Sunday).
As one of my colleagues said, “I wish a gust of wind had scattered all of [Luke’s] notes and just blown that page away.
So, what are we to do with Jesus when He says something like this?
How do we make sense of it?
And how in the world can we find the good news in such a brash proclamation?
Historian Paul Johnson frames the question this way: “By the time of His trial and passion Jesus had succeeded in uniting an improbable, indeed unprecedented coalition against Him: The Roman authorities, the Pharisees, even Herod Antipas. And in destroying Him, this unnatural combination appears to have acted with a great measure of popular support. What conclusions can we draw from this?”
And then author Stephen Shoemaker answers the historian’s question by pointing out: “The crowds we in on it. Democracy was in on it. The Jewish leaders were in on it. The conservatives and the liberals were in on it. The Bible scholars were in on it. The bureaucrats were in on it. The great Roman Imperium was in on it, killing a few more that day in the name of Pax Romana, the famous Roman Peace. The best and the brightest were in on it. The most religious and spiritual were in on it. The narcotic of war was in on it; the spiritual frenzy of inquisition and blood sacrifice was in on it.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, I was there. We all were there: voting, jeering, silent, enthralled, confused, tortured, hoping that maybe with this man’s death things might be better now.
We were all there.”
When Jesus arrived on the scene, he no doubt did bring division. His truth divided politics within party lines. He segregated the human heart from the things that make for hatred, bigotry and enmity. He culled his people out of the nations like sheep, and inducted them into citizenry of the kingdom of God.
Jesus was born into controversy. He was sent to disrupt and dismay. Jesus came into the world as an interventionist: to agitate the complacency of the comfortable; to convict and transform the human heart.
And that is not always an easy message to hear.
But sometimes a little disruption and conflict are necessary in order for change to happen. Sometimes Jesus brings a sword; to divide, to prune, to winnow, to thresh – even to cut the umbilical cord so that new life can begin once more.
Here in the Presbyterian church, we kind of like to present and promote a Jesus who’s so inoffensive that He thinks, acts and looks like us.
But, the truth of the matter is that Jesus isn’t just like us. He is Other than us. And sometimes Jesus brings peace. And other times He brings a sword. And this scripture reminds us of that uneasy truth.
It reminds us of St. Francis who left his wealthy home in spite of his father’s furious protests, to go and live a simple life of faith by imitating his Lord as much as he could.
It reminds me of the pastor of a church in one Birmingham’s worst ghettos, who, every Sunday morning, stops and frisks every worshiper who comes through the door for weapons and for drugs. “Our guiding theology,” he proclaims, “is that there is nothing you can bring in here – no addition, no craziness, screw-up, hate or sin – that Jesus can’t handle. He is Lord!”
It reminds me of a friend of mine who left his $250,000 law practice to follow God’s call; to pick up his family and go to seminary and into a ministry that started at about $35,000 a year. His wife eventually got fed up living on a budget, took the children and left him.
It reminds me of a former parishioner; a young man who was raised by a horribly abusive father permeated the family environment with unchecked rage, ultimately unleashing that rage in full upon his wife – this young man’s mother – brutally killing her.
His father was subsequently sent to prison for life. It’s not hard to understand why this young man’s two brothers disowned their father for his life long brutality.
But they then also dissociated themselves from their brother, my parishioner, who, after much spiritual pain and soul searching, let the grace of Jesus Christ come into his heart; and he forgave his father and continued to visit him in prison. His two brothers could simply not understand that.
Jesus Christ came into this world to disrupt and controvert, to unsettle and dislodge, to challenge and to change. Jesus came to divide the peoples of the world in order to create a whole new community; one in which he alone ruled the heart.
Columnist Ben Wattenberg wrote, “What’s real in politics is what the voters decide is real.”
Not so Jesus Christ.
What is true in our Christian faith is what Christ alone says is true. And what is of value in this Christian faith of ours, is what Christ alone proclaims is to be held in high value.
Jesus’ family values are quite likely to be different than the ones which come naturally, or most easily, to us.
“Whoever does the will of my Father, they are My brother and My sister and My mother …”
“Whoever gives one of these little ones a cup of cold water …”
“Whoever takes up their cross and follows Me …”
“Whoever loses their life for My sake …”
“Whoever receives Me …”
I think it was Will Rogers who said, `there’s always good news and bad news, during presidential primaries. The good news is, the field of candidate’s narrows as the season progresses. The bad news is, so do their minds.’
But, as those who believe in Christ Jesus, we are called to leave such narrowness of mind at the door when we step into the wideness of God’s grace.
As we wade through this season of political rhetoric characterized by anger, hatred and bitterness, it might be good to remind ourselves that what distinguishes us as Christians is our love. Love is our core family value. Love keeps us together when tensions run high or when conflicts ensue. Love preserves us through tough times of transitions. Love separates us from the things that make for sin and death, and unites us with the fullness of life.
(*Grateful acknowledgement to Barbara Brown Taylor for title and inspiration.)