What does Jesus have to say about family?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Tuesday 06, January 2015 | Category:   Scripture,Church History
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Biblical family values sound similar to a 1950s American nuclear household setting. The creation story says that a man and woman leaves their parents in order to form a new unity. Yet "Honor your father and your mother" is the nucleus around which Hebrew tradition positioned its model of family dynamics. There's a certain tension in these ideals: how do we make a clean break with the original family while still living up to the obligation to honor those ties? Every modern marriage struggles to juggle these conflicting priorities.

The Mosaic tradition was built on a system that gave the eldest father, or patriarch, authority over the clan, including the power to bless or curse its members for the future. This gradually led to laws permitting divorce in circumstances of male displeasure with the union. Children had to obey their parents in terms described at length in the wisdom tradition: "Children, pay heed to a father's right; do so that you may live." The mother's influence isn't left out of the equation: "For a father's blessing gives a family firm roots, but a mother's curse uproots the growing plant." (Sir 3:1 and 9) Children had the responsibility to care for aging parents, but parents had the duty to discipline, instruct, and protect their children.

In between Moses and the later sages, the prophets showed less interest in family dynamics and more in social justice and fidelity to Israel's God. When Jesus began his teaching ministry 1200 years after Moses and a century or two after the wisdom sages, his emphasis seems rooted in prophetic concerns: the poor and the sick, the outcast and the sinner. When Jesus speaks of family, it's often to translate it into new terms. Jesus prefers to identify with the child rather than the way of the powerful patriarch. Mother and sister and brother are not primarily ties of blood but of loyalty to the word of God. The goodness parents show to children is a fraction of what God has for us. The teachings of Jesus won't necessarily strengthen families but will serve to tear many apart. In fact, following Jesus may involve choosing his way over the way of family altogether— an idea forcefully expressed as "hating" family. This family of faith is poignantly illustrated at the cross, where the disciple receives a new mother, and the mother a new child. The Jesus family isn't just a contradiction of ancient family patterns. It's a total transfiguration of the ideal.

Scriptures: Gen 2:24; Deut 5:16; Prov 31:10-31; Sir 3:1-16; 7:18-28; 26:1-18; 30:1-13; 42:9-14; Mk 9:36-37; Lk 8:19-21; 11:27-28; 12:49-53; 14:25-26; 18:29-30; Jn 19:26-27

Books: The Gospel of the Family - Cardinal Walter Kaspar (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014)

A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family - Julia Rubio (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003)

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