A Strange Sense of Family
By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
This is probably not a very good analogy, but it’s the only one I could think of…
Remember 9/11? Remember? Who could forget? We can’t forget 9/11 any more than the “Greatest Generation” can forget Pearl Harbor. Let’s talk about it for a minute…
After the initial shock wore off, what did we do? We re-grouped. The Patriot Act was passed. The Department of Homeland Security was formed. The airlines began a tighter scrutiny of passengers, trying to insure that nothing was brought on board an aircraft that would even come close to be used as a weapon of any kind. We began thinking in terms of colors… red alerts, yellow, orange. We went back to the basics when it came to protecting our borders. We pulled in our loved ones close to our sides and we vowed that our enemies would never find us so vulnerable again.
That’s what we did. In some cases, admittedly, we overreacted. I flew to Atlanta the first day air travel resumed, and the security authorities took my safety razor. But even that was fairly understandable. We had been attacked on our own soil, and we didn’t like it… not one bit.
So here’s the analogy…
In the year 70 A.D., the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman forces. An attempt had been made, on the part of some Jewish zealots, to expel the hated Romans from the Holy City. So they revolted against what they considered to be heavy-handed oppression on the part of the occupying army. They were anything but successful.
In retribution the Roman Empire chose to show the Israelites what power they really had. They had tolerated these spiteful Jews long enough, and this, quite frankly, was just the excuse they had been looking for to show off their military ability. Roman soldiers swept down upon the city with all their power and force. Thousands of the city’s inhabitants died, and those who managed to survive this first-century holocaust were left homeless and in despair. The temple – the very one that Jesus’ disciples had marveled at, and that Jesus said if it was destroyed he would rebuild in three days… that temple – was demolished. The only thing left of the temple to this day is what we now call “the wailing wall.”
If you are a first-century Jew, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is your 9/11, your Alamo, your Pearl Harbor, all rolled into one.
That’s the analogy.
The dust has now settled over the destroyed Jerusalem. You count the number of people who have survived, and you take stock of your situation. In light of that, what do you do? The same thing we did after 9/11. You stop, you grieve over your loss, and then you re-group. You consider what you have left and think of what is so basic to survival that you cannot do without it.
And you ask basic questions. What is the one, major force in your life that is still standing? What is the one thing the Romans cannot destroy with all their military might? It is your religious devotion, and you will defend it with your very life. If nothing else remains, your worship, your faith in the one true God of Israel, will prevail. You are the children of Abraham, and even without your beloved temple you will make sure the faith is kept alive. You will see to it, and if need be you will see to it personally.
Except, there is a fly in the ointment, and it comes at the hand of your very own people. For the last thirty years or so, there has been a growing movement within Judaism based on the Galilean peasant named Jesus, the one who was crucified. At first, his followers simply called their religious expression “The Way.” Now, they are starting to be called “Christians” because they believe this Jesus to be the longed-for Messiah, the Christ. You would have thought this movement would have died a natural death, unlike that of its founder, but no. They are growing in numbers, and you are hard-pressed as to figure out just exactly why.
Because the Jews have, for the most part, not taken well to any new expression of faith, but especially this one, Jesus’ followers have expanded their borders by taking their message to the Gentiles. In some cases they are not even requiring the Gentiles to adhere to Jewish law before they can embrace this new religious faith. If another analogy would help, it would be like our church accepting people for membership who have never been baptized… in any way. Kinda rubs against the grain, doesn’t it?
Something has to be done about this and done quickly. If Judaism is to survive – and it will survive – it has to deal with this Christian movement, and the sooner the better.
So, in the years following 70 A.D., the followers of Jesus not only suffer at the hands of pagan persecution, they are oppressed by the Jewish leadership as well. It has become a very hateful world to those who put their faith in Jesus. Some family members believe in Jesus and others don’t. In the process, families are being torn apart.
It’s to these Jewish Christians that Matthew, a Jew, is writing his gospel and sharing these words of Jesus. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; 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 one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
The people who hear these words of Jesus, recorded by Matthew, know exactly what Jesus is talking about because it’s happening to them. At that very moment, because of their devotion to Jesus, many of them have been cut off from the rest of their family. Mom’s not having anything to do with Daughter, and Dad has disowned Son.
So now, now that we are removed from all this by twenty centuries of time and history and evolution of life and faith, we sit here on Father’s Day not a little bit resentful that this passage is still in the Bible and that it has been chosen as the text for this special occasion. There are just some subjects that ought to be left alone, and this one is at the top, especially on a day like today. The disciples were very competent at remembering what Jesus said, but in this case, we wish their memory hadn’t been quite so good. Some things are best left unsaid, and this is one of them.
But you know what? Even if Matthew hadn’t recorded it, this passage would still be in the New Testament because Luke puts it in his gospel as well. And Luke is a Gentile writing to other Gentiles. You know what that means? It means the early Christian church took to heart what Jesus said. These strange, and seemingly hurtful, words meant something to them, something very important. If they don’t mean as much to us, that is because something has been lost in time – not to mention translation. And that just may be our fault.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; 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 one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
Barbara Brown Taylor asks the question for all of us when she says, “What are we to make of such a harsh pronouncement, and where, please, is the good news in it?”1
Think about it… Jesus tells us to love our enemies and then turns right around and encourages his followers to turn against family members. It just doesn’t seem to make sense, does it?
Not only that – and this is something to consider on Father’s Day – he has just brought back from death to life a little girl, at the request of her Father no less. It is the time when Jesus is asked by the synagogue leader to come heal his child. On the way, Jesus is touched by the woman with the twelve-year hemorrhage. He stops and heals her of her illness, only to find when he arrives at the home that the little girl has died.
We can just picture him speaking tenderly to this small, lifeless body. We see her stir, take Jesus’ hand, sit up, rub her eyes as if she’s merely waking from a long night’s sleep. Jesus takes her into his arms and then hands her to her father. It is one of the most endearing of all the stories in the gospels. It gives us goose bumps just thinking of it, and maybe even puts a tear or two in our eye. But then, almost in the next breath, Jesus is found saying, “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
“Where, please, is the good news in it?”
Some people think they know what Jesus is talking about. Family life was never any good. Dad was an alcoholic or mom was abusive. Chaos within the walls of home was the order of the day. The only thing normal about it was the abnormality of it.
But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He says that family members will be turned against one another, not because of some psychological defect or abnormal family gene – or a drinking problem. Mother and daughter, father and son, are turned against one another specifically because of what Jesus said and did, and what Jesus stands for. If we are to believe Jesus, the gospel – which is supposed to mean “good news,” I will remind you – does not always bring people together. Sometimes, it divides them.
What happens to family loyalty and relationships when Jesus comes first? That’s what he’s talking about. That’s what he’s talking about. It is a painful, painful subject.
Maybe it would be helpful for us to understand where Jesus was when he was saying these things. He is on the way to Jerusalem, the very city that a few decades later will be destroyed. He knows there’s some dirty business to be taken care of, and such business involves a cross, a cross with his name on it. He knows where he’s going, but nobody else seems to be aware of it. So, it’s a lonely journey despite the fact that he is surrounded by his friends.
There are those who try to engage him in conversation. “Let me first go and bury my father,” one man says to Jesus. Won’t Jesus be impressed with his loyalty to family? “Follow me,” Jesus responds – rather coldly, it seems – “and let the dead bury their own dead.” What in the world does that mean? How can the dead bury the dead?
Is Jesus suggesting that those who do not follow him are dead, dead in their trespasses and sins? Could be, especially when you consider that Jesus now defines God’s family as those who believe in and follow him. Besides, you see, there is no indication that the man’s father has actually died. Dad may still be fairly young and robust. The man is using his family loyalty as an excuse not to follow Jesus to the cross, and Jesus accepts no excuse – no excuse – for a lack of commitment to his way.
And, of course, we are familiar with the time Jesus was teaching and his family came to get him, to take him home for some much-needed rest and recuperation. When word has reached him that his mother and his siblings have come to see him, he answers by saying, “Who is my family?” And then he defines his family as those who follow his Father… his heavenly father.
“Where, please, is the good news in it?” Especially on Father’s Day?
Well, understand this, if you will… Jesus doesn’t despise family… not yours, not mine. But he does re-define family, doesn’t he?
My mother, bless her heart, doesn’t throw much away. It does get messy at times, but I forgive her. After all, she saved all my old baseball cards. She also kept pictures and put them neatly into photo albums. I’ve borrowed a couple of those albums lately and have been scanning pictures and printing them out. I’m particularly fond of the photos of my parents and extended family members when they were young and more physically vital than they are now. I’m starting to frame them and hang them all over the house.
My Aunt Frances, bless her heart, has written stories of my family. I plan to take her narratives and write a book of what life was like living on Crowley’s Ridge in Greene County back in the 20’s and 30’s and 40’s, when life was hard but life was good because that was the only life my family knew.
Family, memories… it’s all very important to me, as I’m sure it is to you. Family is who we are, and we couldn’t change that if we wanted to. Even the gospel writers gave us Jesus’ family tree. It was important to them that we see where it was Jesus had come from.
I’m not so sure that his lineage was so important to Jesus because he talked about his mother and brothers, his sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins, as being those who give their devotion to his heavenly father. And that is why, when a person is baptized into the faith, we say that we are brother, we are sister, in Christ.
We are kin, you and I, we are kin… if we believe in this Jesus and follow him. That also means we have family who don’t look like us or bear a physical resemblance to us in any way. Their skin is a different color, their culture is not our own, and they speak a different language. Yet, we are family because we are one in Christ Jesus. And Jesus says that this kinship is the most meaningful and eternal of all.
After twenty-two years of “living on the lam,” our family returned home to our native state of Arkansas in 1993. Well, three-fourths of us did, anyway. I remember the next Father’s Day. At the beginning of worship, when I was making the announcements, I wished all the dads who were there a happy Father’s Day. I remember saying that the best way for me to honor my heavenly Father was by honoring my earthly father. There were nods of approval and agreement throughout the church. But I was wrong. I had it backwards. The best way for me to honor my earthly father is to honor my heavenly Father. And the best way for me to honor my heavenly Father is following his son… even to the cross, if need be.
That, I think, is what Jesus was talking about. It may seem like a strange sense of family to us, but in the eternal scheme of things – and in the eyes of the kingdom of heaven – it is what family is all about.
Lord, help us be family as we devote ourselves to following Jesus. And when we call you Father, may you return the blessing by calling us your children. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 15
— Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.