Jesus’ Unexpected Family Values

Luke 14:25-33
In my early ministry, my colleague and I co-led premarital classes each year.  Our classes always began with a skit about some common marital challenge.  I wrote one called, The Holiday Question, which featured a couple who had recently married and did not choose to attend the family holiday celebrations.
Every year, this skit was controversial. Some in the class thought it was completely insensitive to think that the newlyweds would choose their own private celebration over the broader family on Christmas day.  What a terrible idea!  Family is first!  Others, however, were intrigued:  It seemed less like a challenge to the importance of family, and more of an affirmation of family – that it might be beneficial for some couples to establish their own family as a couple and then join the larger family unit. 
My job as pastor, of course, was not to answer this thorny question, but to raise the question, and provide the opportunity for the couples to wrestle with it. 
It seems to me that Jesus does something similar inn today’s gospel lesson.  Jesus he turns to the crowds as says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  It’s strong language.  In fact, Jesus sounds like a misanthrope, as if he is advocating animosity against family members.  But the word ‘hate’ is key here.  It is often used in wisdom traditions of the Bible to designate a person’ discernment about what is good in life.  Psalms and Proverbs, for instance, say that the wicked hate discipline, justice, and knowledge, while the righteous hate wickedness, falsehood, and gossip.  The hating is less about animosity, and more about making a firm choice based on holy wisdom. 
Jesus is being intentionally provocative.  He presents two stark realities: life with the usual priorities of caring for family and possessions, and life as a disciple of Jesus where you take up your cross and follow him above all else.  In doing so, he poses the question to his listeners: which would you choose? 
It wasn’t an easy question to answer.  In Jesus’ day, the family was the basic unit of social organization and an economic necessity.  Your place was dictated by gender, birth order, and family status; you carried out the behaviors and the responsibilities of your station.  There were cultural and religious obligations of all kinds based on the family; the work you did, the people you interacted with, how people treated one another in the hierarchy of power.  It wasn’t easy to simply step outside that expected order.
Jesus, however, breaks those expectations/does just that.  Earlier in this gospel, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to see him, but Jesus puts them off, answering that “my mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”    According to Jesus, blood ties are not the definition of family; faithfulness to God’s word is.  Likewise, Luke describes widows who follow Jesus as disciples and provide for him out of their own means—just like they would biological family.  Later in the book of Acts, the sequel to Luke, we see Jesus’ followers becoming a new kind family to one another, feeding the poor, caring for the sick, and sharing their possessions.  Jesus’ shocking words about family open up the possibility of a new social order where the boundaries are defined by a common mission, not common lineage.  It’s a social order where the expected is turned upside down: the first are last, and the least are the greatest, and where love for biological family expands to become service to others, even when its costly.
It’s a sign of changed priorities.  Jesus does not ascribe to “family first” priorities.  Jesus expects disciple priorities where love for biological family expands to include all kinds of people.
Which is really what this Gospel lesson is about—changed priorities.  Family is just the first of the disciple priorities that Jesus wants to instill.  Our passage concludes with Jesus saying, “Therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possession.”  Possessions doesn’t just mean stuff, home, treasured objects, personal effects – it encompasses all the things that these would-be disciples plan and work for, even to secure their family’s future and wellbeing.  It’s all that they manage and tend.  Being a disciple means that Jesus takes priority over one’s entire life.  Being a disciple means being willing to hold one’s loved ones and one’s life loosely, and to be willing to let it all go in favor of following Jesus into his upside down, ever expanding community of inclusion and justice.
It may seem like Jesus drives hard bargain.  Following him can seem too costly, perhaps even wrong, if it means putting one’s family second.  But when Jesus recalibrates our priorities, he is actually pointing us toward life.  The things that are dear to us, whether it be family, or education, or dedicated service to a company or cause are actually things of penultimate value.  As important as these relationships and activities are, they are not permanent features in our lives; our experience with them waxes and wanes.  They are however a sign of what is enduring: our relationship with Jesus as his disciple.  These aspects of our lives that seem so front and center now are actually of secondary importance compared to the eternal view that God has.  And being Jesus’ disciple is ultimately what brings us joy and meaning.  It is ultimately what is worth sacrifice and bearing a cross.
There is a lightness to all this challenging material, and that is in redefining the place of the family in our lives, Jesus liberates us from being slaves to the myth of the perfect family.  Let’s be honest: there is no such things as the perfect family.  All families have their ups and downs; some family situations are emotionally painful or even abusive.  Most families have at least one member who is cut off.
Jesus dethrones the perfect family from its pedestal, so we are free to stop idealizing other people’s family as we scroll through social media posts.  We can stop idolizing the perfect family as a sign of holiness and God’s favor.  As Jesus frees from our toxic brew of envy and dissatisfaction, he opens us to acceptance for the gift family can be: a place to practice the Christian values of forgiveness, patience, and care; a place to strengthen our faith in Jesus, our brother who understands the limits of family and creates a new one that lifts up the essential worth of each person as they truly are. 
Jesus’ assertion that a disciple must be prepared to choose between family and faith raises a lot of questions.  But Jesus is not putting down family life or trying to cause rifts in family.  Instead he is pointing  us toward a healthy distinction: following Jesus will require letting go of old patterns and priorities in exchange for something challenging but ultimately better. 

I don’t know where those couples in pre-marital class decided to spend their holidays, or even if after all these years, those couples are still together.  But what I do know is that Jesus offers his difficult but life giving teaching to them, and to each one of us.  Jesus invites us to see him in our families, and in all of our experiences – and he invites us to choose following him above all else, and trust that in him, the people we love and the commitments we make will fall into place. 

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