Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.Matthew 10:34-37 (NRSV)
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.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me…
These may be the most surprising words of Jesus. It seems out of character, not Christlike. However, when read with everything else, of course Jesus said it.
Let us remember that Matthew in presenting Jesus to us has already pointed out that the current leadership, both political and religious, is lacking. Jesus is the better leader. Matthew has told us that Jesus faced opposition from those other leaders, and his disciples will face the same. Which leads to the next point Matthew makes as he continues to introduce Jesus to us, namely, we face a choice. Given the leadership credentials of Jesus, will we follow him? Given that we may face opposition, will we follow him?
We can follow the status quo leadership and experience the status quo, or we can follow Jesus and experience big disruption in our lives. To paraphrase Jesus as he speaks about the division that following him brings, even to families: “Follow me and it is going to get messy!”
Thinking of what Jesus said about our love for him being greater than for our families, when we see the word love we may jump to the idea of “having affection for,” or “having compassion and concern for.” Is Jesus asking us to have greater affection for him, or concern for him? It seems to me that Jesus can take care of himself. As for our sons, when they were younger, not so much.
Family relationships and love within family relationships are about more than affection, compassion, and concern. They are about being formed, influenced, and affected by. Our families probably have greater influence on us than anyone or anything else. My Mum had an expression which I often heard growing up, “you get like the people you live with.” If we are not careful we will pick up attitudes and habits without even knowing it, which can include judgemental attitudes, overly pessimistic or overly optimistic attitudes, misuse of alcohol, and bad financial habits to name a few.
When Jesus says love me more than your family, he does not mean have more compassion and concern for him than your family, but allow your relationship with him to have greater impact on you. What he is in effect saying is “Don’t fall into being just like your family, lean into me and be more like me instead.” We tend to have a deep relationship of influence within our families, even when we don’t think we do. Jesus wants us to have a deeper relationship of influence with him and experience a greater impact from him. He is the wiser and greater authority on life than our family members. The way of Jesus is way better than the ways of your family.
Some will read these verses about disruption coming to family and will think “see we are following Jesus well because my devotion to Christianity has brought division to my family.” There is no more obvious example of this than when a child comes out as gay. Some well meaning Christian leaders call upon parents of gay children to try to get them to change their minds, to straighten them out. If that does not happen, don’t allow a significant other into you home for that will send the wrong signal. If they get married, don’t attend the wedding because that will send the wrong signal. If they do get married, don’t allow your child to bring their partner for Christmas dinner, again because it will send the wrong signal. Following this kind of advice will obviously bring disruption to family relationships and indeed one’s child will pick up the signals and will likely not want to show up for Christmas dinner thank you very much. This family disruption is proof, for some, that one is following Jesus well. “See I love Jesus more than my child!”
Moving further along in Matthew we come across some words of Jesus that have been very meaningful for me:
He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV emphasis added)
The religious teachers were quite adamant that to be godly one must never work on a sabbath. Yet Jesus points out that even they knew that sometimes it is better to ignore their own teaching on righteousness in order to do the right thing. The sheep needs rescued. The religious rules just don’t work in this instance. Following the religious rules is unwise when there is a sheep in a pit.
There are a whole group of people in a pit. They hide, sometimes for years, sometimes forever, something very important about themselves from religious parents. They try to change themselves and despair when they can’t. Some are kicked out of their homes. Some take their own lives. The religious rules make gay children, teens and adults alike, feel not at home at home, not at home in their home church, and not at home with themselves.
I know what the Bible says about same-gender sex (which happens to be way less than what it says about the Sabbath), but people in a pit need our help, and I know what Jesus said about that.
It has been important for my wife and I that our gay son feels at home at home. Being the father of a gay child has not been difficult. Being the father of a gay child and being a Baptist has. Having a gay child has not led me to have all the answers, but it has led me to good questions, and to a greater awareness of some really bad answers. With so much being said among Baptists in our day on such matters perhaps part of the solution going forward is for less pontification from religious leaders like me, which ends up sounding like Pharisees pontificating about the Sabbath, and more giving parents and those who are gay alike the resources and space to figure it out. When it is your sheep that falls in a pit you have the eyes to see the wise thing to do. The Bible says that sometimes the religious rules just don’t work. Or at least Jesus pointed it out.
The way of Jesus is way better than the ways of our religion. Let us put Jesus and the way of Jesus at the centre. Sometimes religion doesn’t and sometimes religious leaders don’t. Let us not unthinkingly fall into religion and the religion of the religious leaders but let us lean into Jesus.
So in introducing us to Jesus, Matthew begins to present us with a choice; to put Jesus at the centre of our lives or not. We may think we do, but family and/or religious leaders may be there instead.
(Some time ago I put together a series of videos on my experience of being a pastor and the father of an openly gay child. The project is unfinished, and in hindsight could be better, but it is what it is, I did what I could, and if it helps anyone, it can be found here. The full sermon from which this bog post has been taken can be seen here.)