This past Friday, Vice President Mike Pence visited our beautiful state to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Focus on the Family, a global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families. Based in Colorado Springs, the organization has Associate Offices is 13 regions world-wide in places such as Australia, Africa, and the Middle East. Founded in 1977 by psychologist James Dobson, Focus on the Family has a stated mission of “nurturing and defending the God-ordained institution of the family and promoting biblical truths worldwide.” If you’re like me, you probably think families need all the help they can get! It’s hard being a family these days! Whether you have young children at home, teens ready to leave the nest, or your kids are grown up and have kids or even grandkids of their own—you likely have seen first-hand the pressures burdening so many families. While we do live in a beautiful state, it is also a very expensive state in which to live—the median price of a single-family home is $420,000. That’s not the average price of a home, which can be skewed by high end properties, that is simply the price in the middle—where half the homes sold cost more and half the homes cost less. Unfortunately, employers aren’t necessarily adjusting their compensation plans accordingly, leading many families to feel the squeeze financially.
With all the other pressures that weigh on families these days such as children, work, intimacy, and chores—it’s hard enough being a family without having to worry about finding an affordable place to live. We need our home and our family to be a safe, welcoming space, a source of comfort and love—whether we’re the parent, a child, empty-nesters, grand-parents or even great-grandparents. Stress and conflict disrupts our family and makes handling the pressures of the daily grind even harder. “Problems at home” as we like to say, inevitably spill over into our external activities such as work, hobbies, and friends. We don’t need family to be another source of conflict—we need help smoothing out the sources of anxiety that exist in any family or relationship.
Why in the world then would Jesus say; “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” What’s going on here!? Can we please have back the warm, comforting Jesus we like to think of? You know, the one often pictured sitting with the children while soft, fuzzy lambs graze in the lush green. Perhaps you’re wondering, what exactly is going on here?
Let me confess first off, this is a difficult passage of scripture to talk about. There’s no quick, easy answers to language as strong as this—and simply saying “it’s complicated” leaves one desiring more, yet delving too deep into exegetical and theological interpretations will inevitably bore even the most astute listener. Once I was asked after church services about this passage; it caught me off-guard and I wasn’t really sure how to respond. I think I gave some sort of unsatisfying and not-quite-accurate response such as, “it doesn’t really mean what it seems.” Yet, even if you were to ask me today after services, “what does this passage mean exactly,” the details I’d begin to explain to you would be about as engaging as listening to a lecture on the Israeli-Palestine conflict; lots of intricate details of historical distinctions, cultural differences, and language particularities. Again, this is a difficult passage to talk about.
Let me say in short, or rather use another’s words to say in short, that in Mediterranean societies a person’s primary loyalty was to blood relatives, especially parents…It was a retort to people who used family ties as an excuse not become a follower of Jesus. Only a couple pages over in Matthew chapter 8, Jesus said the infamous line, “let the dead bury the dead.” It was a response to a person who claimed he wanted to follow Jesus, but first needed to follow through on all the societal customs regarding a father’s eventual death and burial. Jesus was saying, “come now, while you feel called, don’t let your fire burn out.” In other words, if you don’t do it now, later you’ll make excuses why you shouldn’t and end up never doing it.
Think of it like this. Several years ago, Corinna and I were preparing to move to Springfield, MO. Being as I’m a big runner and enjoy working out at a nice gym, during the week I was out there looking for a job, I decided to go check out one of the local fitness centers. I don’t remember what the place was called and I think it’s been renamed since, but I walked in and asked for the tour of the place. Having once worked for 24 Hour Fitness, I should have known what I was walking into. The guy took me on the tour, showed me the equipment, and then started going over pricing with me. I tried my usual cop-out ploy— “I need to talk to my wife about it first.” Undeterred, the salesman grabbed his phone, put it right down in front of me and said, “here, you can call your wife right now.” This guy saw through my attempts to use my wife as an out, to avoid having to decide right then and there. Like Jesus, he knew that once I went back home and started thinking about it, I would realize, “I don’t even have a job yet! Why in the world would I sign a $50 a month contract on a gym membership? This is I think what Jesus was saying; don’t use your family as excuse to not follow me.
Now that’s not to say that family can never be a source of opposition. “The first readers of this text faced family pressures to reject Jesus and his claims that are scarcely imaginable for many of us. Sometimes we do have to make hard choices, sometimes we do have to choose between one or the other. After all, following Jesus shakes up our values, rearranges our priorities, and reorients our goals. The message of Jesus is not always soothing and comforting; sometimes it might feel like a sword that is digging into us, trying to cut away everything that’s not good in our lives. Think of it like this. If your child or grandchild ever had a splinter that went deep into their skin, below the surface and beyond the reach of tweezers, you probably had to pull out a needle and puncture the surface of their skin in order to get the splinter out. I’d imagine, like most kids, the child winced or cried or screamed as you dug into their skin to get the splinter out lest it become inflamed or infected. Sometimes, the truth of Jesus digs into us in ways that aren’t always comfortable. Sometimes, the truth of Jesus reveals to us things about ourselves we don’t always want to see. And sometimes, the truth of Jesus seeks to rid us of misconceptions about relationships.
I think there’s this common belief in Christian circles that the best Christians are the ones who have the perfect nuclear family. You know, hard-working dad, loving mom, and two perfect kids—a boy and a girl. In other words, the Smiths are essentially the perfect Christian family! All joking aside, we have in some ways in this country equated traditional family values such as honesty, loyalty, and industry—when combined with the nuclear family—as the ideal of what it means to be a Christian. And while this sounds fine on the surface, such ideals imply that’s the only way to be a good Christian. Single mom—that’s too bad for you; divorced—that’s a permanent mark against you; childless—why aren’t you producing godly offspring; gay—you might as well forget about it. Sometimes traditional family values conflicts with Jesus’ values.
Where family values say love family and hate your enemies, Jesus says love everyone.
Where family values legitimize only some relationships, Jesus says love is love.
Where family values define insiders and outsiders, Jesus welcomes all.
Remember, Jesus welcomed prostitutes, lepers, and tax collectors, all those people who didn’t have a family or weren’t deemed as acceptable in the eyes of society.
Family values and Jesus’ values are not the same thing. Sometimes following Jesus will put us at odds with members of our own family. Sometimes following Jesus will force us to make hard choices. Sometimes following Jesus will feel like God is sticking a gigantic needle in our finger! It’s not always easy. But the good news is that in Jesus, we are a part of God’s family—and God has a big house, with room for everyone. Whether we have the nuclear family with the 2.2 kids at home, whether we’re a single mom raising kids alone, or whether we’re divorced and figuring out life on our own, we are a part of God’s family. Jesus demonstrated God’s love and welcome, especially for us outcast and oddball families. And even better, in Jesus, God welcomes perfect families like the Smiths too! God’s family values each and every one of us!