This Sunday, we began a new sermon series called Questions from the Floor. This series is the brainchild of my colleague Louise, who compiled a list of questions that came from…you! Each of the nine sermon topics came from responses to our request for questions/topics that are of interest to members of the congregation.
I got to make the first pancake, with an easy question, dontcha think. Thus: “What would Jesus think of so-called ‘Family Values’?”
I received a number of bits of feedback on the sermon – but before I share them with you, let me give you just a brief rundown on what I said (or at least attempted to).
I spoke first about how we ought to be careful drawing to clean a line between what Jesus said, and our own context. “Family Values” comes out of a context that is so very particular to our culture and politics – whose implications are very foreign to the culture and context in which Jesus taught and lived.
I then offered a working definition of “family values” (because the question here really does in a way hinge on another question: whose “family values”?) I assume the questioner meant this: first, any discussion of “family values” implies that the nuclear family ought to be the means (institution) by which society is rightly ordered – such an organizing institution is the way God intended for society to be organized. And we define family as husband/wife and 2.3 kids. Second, we then associate values that enhance and strengthen such families, as defined, to be “family values.” Thus, “Honor thy father and mother” is an example of the quintessential “family value”.
I offered thoughts mostly around what Jesus might have thought (humbly admitting the challenge of translating his teaching to our context) about the first part: did God intend for society’s primary or exclusive organizing principle to be the nuclear family? Setting aside the fact that “family” meant something different in Jesus’ time, I made the case that it would be very hard, taking all of the instances when Jesus specifically mentions family, that he felt this specific institution represents God’s intention for the ordering of society. In most instances when Jesus speaks specifically of the institution of family, he speaks disparagingly of it. In the text I read for the sermon, Jesus’ own family (his mother and brothers) are seeking an audience with him. His response: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers…? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50) In Luke, his words are even stronger: “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.” (Luke 14:26) Jesus seemed to question every loyalty – to clan or to state or to emperor – that distracted human beings from the kind of primary loyalty he taught: citizens of the Kingdom of God hold a radical loyalty to God and to neighbor; for Jesus, water (that is, baptism) is thicker than blood.
To the original point I made, however: we can’t be too quick in translating those words as meaning Jesus was “anti-family” – to be sure. Jesus was speaking out of an apocalyptic context. That is, he was speaking with the kind of urgency that comes when you expect that the whole world as we know it is about to end. So was Paul. Such was the thinking of those in his movement. That’s a good reason to put aside subsidiary loyalties, like family, clan, country, and so forth – or at least, to put them in proper perspective. But we know, the world’s end has not occurred in the couple millennia that follow Jesus’ ministry. We need a more stable way to organize ourselves; family – not a bad means to practice the values that Jesus taught.
And Jesus did practice good “family values” in his ministry. Jesus’ expressed compassion for his mother at the cross, asking Peter to care for her (women had no social safety net outside the protection of a male-dominated society). He upheld the rights of widows and orphans, and advocated for children to care for parents. The values of fidelity, of covenantal responsibility, are primary marks of the ethics of Jesus.
But, to conclude, it’s hard (for my money) to say unequivocally that Jesus held as sacrosanct one model of “family” as the right and proper way to express the values of the Kingdom, which he taught. Such may argue that we do well not to make an idol out of one particular kind of family. Indeed, Jesus taught that our real family consists of those who are our fellow brothers and sisters in the Kingdom. But whatever way we might organize ourselves as family, it seems clear that Jesus would have insisted that the relationships implied in them be governed by the kind of covenantal and sacrificial love that he literally embodied.
Feedback on the sermon. Several people mentioned their responses to the sermon. One person – a clergy colleague in attendance – mentioned that another consideration in Jesus’ teaching about family is the fact that his suspicions of family as an institution also stemmed from the fact that the society in which he lived was so patricentric – so male dominated. The father and eldest son owned the property, and dominated the family life. Jesus was seeking to promote a more egalitarian ethic.
Another person observed (and I’ll quote him) “that the term ‘family values’ refers (in my experience) to a wide range of issues and behaviors that can be connected to the idea that the nuclear family is the optimum framework for organizing human life. What occurs to me is that Jesus’s frequent excoriation of hypocrites is relevant here, in that some of the most vocal advocates of ‘family values’ have turned out not to practice what they preach. Perhaps the ultimate family values are honesty, fidelity and reverence (?) in our commitments to others.”
Yet another couple, who caught me at Chamber’s Walk, expressed surprise at the radical notion the sermon implied: what do you mean my real family consists of members of the church! How does that work?
Perhaps the speakers (I’ll not name them, since I may not be accurate about their input!) might care to comment further – if they are reading along here.
Future Blog Entries. I’m hoping (no promises) that I can keep up the blogging discipline through the series – for my part. There will of course be a host of other speakers – and I am hoping that perhaps they too can weigh in using this medium.