What Jesus Said About Our Biggest Influencers. (And How What Jesus Said Has Helped Me As a Father of a Gay Child)

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.
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…

Matthew 10:34-37 (NRSV)

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.)

A Better Leader for a Messy World (Thinking Through the Early Chapters of Matthew)

Things seem to be in a mess around the world and perhaps we should blame leadership. Political leaders make decisions that hurt people. Are regular Russians living their daily grind to be blamed for a war waged against the people of Ukraine? Spiritual leaders also can make decisions that hurt people. In fact there is growing talk of the need for recovering from religion. While I myself am religious, depending on how you define “religious,” I do understand that some people need to move out from what can be called spiritual abuse. We who are spiritual leaders, even if we think our hearts are in the right place, can and do inflict harm on people when our heads are not in the right place. While the experience of religion provides great hope and comfort for many, including myself, it brings trauma to many also. That does not happen without leaders.

Political and spiritual leaders can mess with people’s lives each in their own way but perhaps worst of all are those times political leaders and spiritual leaders work their mess making wonders together. Think Taliban. Think the war on Ukraine where the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church has been publicly supportive of the war. When political leadership works hand in hand with spiritual leadership, truth and well being can take a hit. Normal people suffer.

This is not far removed from the world Jesus was born into. As we begin reading the Gospel of Matthew we might miss what is happening in the background. So what was happening in the background? Matthew lets us in on it.

The political leadership was awful.

We are barely into Matthew’s account of Jesus when we are introduced to Herod. History records that Herod the Great was not really that great. He was great at building things, like the temple, but he was also quite accomplished at ruining people’s lives. Matthew tells us about all the infants of Bethlehem being killed. What kind of leader does that? Matthew also reports that Herod’s son was not much better. Near the end of Matthew we are introduced to another political leader, Pilate. What Herod was incapable of doing, namely killing Jesus, Pilate carried out. Whether Romans, or one of their own, the political leadership standing over the people of God in that day was dreadful. At least being Jewish the people could depend on good spiritual leadership, right? Well,…

The spiritual leadership also left much to be desired.

Let us consider a few examples.

In Matthew’s Christmas story, in contrast to the magi who were foreigners, and in contrast to Herod, the spiritual leaders took no initiative to find the one who could potentially be the Messiah. They were not even curious.

Matthew also tells us about how the spiritual leaders received harsh words from John the Baptist:

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to watch him baptize, he denounced them. “You brood of snakes!” he exclaimed. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 3:7-10 (NLT)

Hardly a commendation of good leadership!

Matthew also tells us about how Jesus did not call rabbis, scribes, priests, or Pharisees to follow him closely, but fisherman. If Jesus had been born in our day it would be akin to Jesus bypassing Baptist pastors like myself and calling truck drivers like my brother instead.

We are not far into Matthew when we also get into Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in chapters 5-7. Here we read:

But I warn you—unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!

Matthew 5:20 (NLT)

Some point out the very high standards of the teachers and Pharisees and so call upon Christians today to have super high standards in keeping the rules of our religion. However it is better to understand Jesus here to be taking a dig at the spiritual leaders of the day. Yes, they have high standards in following rules but they are missing the point. They are not becoming good people, nor are they helping others become good people. Jesus teaches us to reach for a better righteousness than what the spiritual leaders exemplify. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount could be summarised as teaching us how to catch the spirit of the law instead of the letter of the law, of how to have a good character that flows from a good heart than mere obedience to rules.

The Sermon on the Mount finishes with this:

“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.”
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.

Matthew 7:24-29 (NLT)

Reading between the lines; “listen to my teaching, not that of your spiritual leaders.” People were eager to do so as they recognised that he taught “with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law.”

We are not very far into the Gospel of Matthew when we realize that both the political and spiritual leadership were lacking.

Enter Jesus!

Matthew introduces the one who leads well.

There are hints and allusions, perhaps hard for us to see today, but which would have stood out to the readers in Matthew’s day, that Jesus is to be compared to a great leader of the past, Moses. Matthew alone records for us the flight of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to, and return from, Egypt. According to Bible scholars some of the language used in one particular sentence, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20 NRSV) is identical to the language used in a then popular Greek translation of Moses’ flight from, and return to, Egypt: “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19). Jesus is like Moses, a leader who brought about God’s purpose of leading the people to freedom.

Also, at the baptism of Jesus Matthew records a voice from heaven saying “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17 NRSV). This is a reminder of a thought that shows up a few times in Exodus:

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, ‘Let my son go that he may worship me.’”

Exodus 4:22-23 NRSV

What was said of Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” is something that ought to have been said of God’s people as a whole but their history was spotty, thanks in large part to their leadership. That Jesus identifies strongly with God’s people is further enhanced with the temptation of Jesus in the desert for forty days which is a bit like God’s people wandering in the wilderness for forty years, only Jesus does it better.

Then there is the first mention of the teaching of Jesus according to Matthew: “From then on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near'” (Matthew 4:17 NLT). The Kingdom of heaven was near because the true king is here!

Matthew then goes on to write about the healings and miracles of Jesus. Where political and spiritual leadership could often be described as life taking, Jesus was always life giving.

To sum up the opening chapters of Matthew, the political and spiritual leaders could not hold a candle next to Jesus. The end of the Matthew reflects this:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)

Much of the mess the world is in today is a result of poor political and spiritual leadership. Jesus is Lord, the leader who is leading us to a much better tomorrow. Jesus is Lord, who leads us to being better people today.