Whoever loves his father or mother more than me is not fit to be my disciple; whoever loves his son or daughter more than me is not fit to be my disciple.
[Jesus’ 12 disciples are sent out on a mission trip with these instructions. For background see Days 83-84.]
I wonder how many people would become Christians if they were familiar with this scripture? I wonder if they would claim to be followers of Jesus if they really understood that he didn’t think our family should be the centerpiece of our lives.
Not only does he say it. He lives it. Jesus leaves his family. He didn’t have a wife, or even a girlfriend. He didn’t have any children, or grandchildren. He didn’t like money. He didn’t have a home. He didn’t have any possessions. He didn’t have a job. He had other concerns. He was consumed with a passion for God and the correct application of Jewish Law. He wanted to liberate, heal, and educate people. He was obsessed with God to the extent that all other things, including family, were superfluous.
Just to be sure, I looked up the words. The word “love” is phileó, which means to love; to show warm affection in intimate friendship, characterized by tender, heartfelt consideration and kinship; to kiss. And the word “fit” is axios, meaning of weight, of worth, worthy; deserving, comparable, suitable. What Jesus is saying is pretty clear. He is telling his disciples that if they love their families more than they love him, they are unfit (or unsuitable) to be his disciples. He wants his disciples to be wholly dedicated to the ministry.
Jesus isn’t the first one in the Bible to deliver the first anti-family. There are many stories that warn us that our families can be one of the greatest threats to our relationship with God. Our love for family may lead us astray.
“Even your brother or your son or your daughter or the wife you love or your closest friend may secretly encourage you to worship other gods, gods that you and your ancestors have never worshiped. Some of them may encourage you to worship the gods of the people who live near you or the gods of those who live far away (Deut. 5:6-7).
This was certainly the case with King Solomon, who built the first great Jewish temple:
Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides the daughter of the king of Egypt he married Hittite women and women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, and Sidon. He married them even though the LORD had commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with these people, because they would cause the Israelites to give their loyalty to other gods. Solomon married seven hundred princesses and also had three hundred concubines. They made him turn away from God, and by the time he was old they had led him into the worship of foreign gods. He was not faithful to the LORD his God, as his father David had been. (1 Kings 11:1-4).
Eli, the father of Samuel the prophet, also offended the Lord because of his love for his family:
I, the Lord God of Israel, promised in the past that your family and your clan would serve me as priests for all time. But now I say that I won’t have it any longer! Instead, I will honor those who honor me, and I will treat with contempt those who despise me. (1 Samuel 2:29-31).
Many people come to church solely for their children. They believe that if their children go to church they will stay out of trouble. Others believe that going to church together strengthens family relationships. It is often said that “the family that prays together stays together.” The Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family has been organized around this premise. Here’s a description of their mission, taken from their website:
Focus on the Family is a global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive. We provide help and resources for couples to build healthy marriages that reflect God’s design, and for parents to raise their children according to morals and values grounded in biblical principles.
We’re here to come alongside families with relevance and grace at each stage of their journey. We support families as they seek to teach their children about God and His beautiful design for the family, protect themselves from the harmful influences of culture and equip themselves to make a greater difference in the lives of those around them.
I’m all for families and I think this sounds nice, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with Jesus. “Harmful influences of culture?” Really? What does protecting themselves against culture have to do with Jesus? Have these people actually read the Gospel? Jesus never avoided the “harmful influences” of culture. He hung around with people whom others considered to be harmful influences. He sought them out. Also, in Christian-speak, “equip themselves to make greater difference in the lives of those around them” means converting their friends and family to join their particular Christian sect.
I always get the sense that Focus on the Family and all groups with a similar orientation use God to prop up their families, which are really their highest priority. They want to use God as the glue to hold their families together in a world where traditional family structures are changing over time.
Conversely, the church has used its support of the family to attract new members and stabilize the institution. Churches spend a lot of time and energy advocating marriage, promoting heterosexual sex, preventing abortions, and teaching both male domination and feminine submission as important components of a healthy family dynamic. Of course lots of churches also encourage couples to have as many children as possible, which is one of the reasons why birth control and abortion are discouraged. This is an important element of church growth.
But families are good, right? But what harm can any of this do?
Well, first of all it doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus. He wasn’t interested in families. He wasn’t interested in bringing the good news to people who have everything all figured out. Remember on Day 77 when Jesus said, “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. Go and find out what is meant by the scripture that says, ‘It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.’ I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.” He came for the outcasts, the ones who are probably despised by their own families. Those people with their “harmful influences” are the ones he came for. Those losers are Jesus’ family.
Second, by making church “family oriented,” singles, divorcees, widows, and widowers no longer fit in. In her book Quitting Church, Julia Duin (the Religion editor for The Washington Times) describes how singles over 35 are leaving the church en masse. It’s kind of a shame because in the past, singles looked to the church to help them find meaning and purpose in their lives. Today they are marginalized by the family-focused church.
Statistically, singles lead the pack in terms of people sliding out the back doors of America’s churches, and many singles never make it in the front door. In October 2005 University of Virginia scholar Brad Wilcox released some statistics on single men and church. Thirty-two percent of married men attend church weekly, he said. Fifteen percent of single men do. Thirty-nine percent of married women attend ch[SC1] urch weekly; 23 percent of single women do.
I’m sure that families who are “less than perfect” also feel alienated by this new, family-focused church that has emerged over the last 50 years or so. And in reality, most families are indeed less than perfect. Do single parent families really feel like they are welcomed in the family church, or are they treated like a “harmful influence,” tolerated but never really accepted? Do families whose children are unruly or rebellious or unconventional feel comfortable in a church environment? What about truly unconventional families like those headed by same sex couples? Those outcast families are Jesus’ family. (Remember Day 77).
Which leads us to the church’s relentless efforts to eradicate homosexuality. It is becoming increasingly clear that the main effect is an increased suicide rate among adolescents, and increased homophobia among both family members and peers. According to Charles Robbins, the executive director and CEO of the Trevor Project, the leading national organization focused on crisis- and suicide-prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth:
- Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (Massachusetts 2007 Youth Risk Survey).
- LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide than LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection (Ryan C, Huebner D, et al., Pediatrics 123(1): 346-52).
- Almost 85 percent of LGBTQ teenagers are harassed in high school because of their sexual orientation, with 61 percent of gay youth reporting that they felt unsafe in school and 30 percent staying home to avoid bullying (2009 Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network survey).
So how many people nowadays are led astray by their relatives like Jesus describes in this scripture? I would guess that very few are tempted to worship the foreign gods of the Old Testament. But how many are seduced by the notion that the Focus on the Family lifestyle is the epitome of a life that is pleasing to God? How many believe that being a good American is the same as being a good Christian? How many are taught that they are better than others just because they enjoy heterosexual sex? How many are taught that they are superior to the rest of the world because they go to a Christian church? How many are taught to believe that worldly success is important? How many are taught to idolize athletes or entertainers?
Jesus warns us to be very careful about family love. Jesus wants us to love everyone – widows, orphans, tax collectors, outcasts, gay people, transvestites, gang bangers, ornery neighbors, welfare recipients, terrorists, politicians, Muslims, drug addicts, illegal immigrants, all of them – just as much as we love our own families. He wants us all to be one big family with no one left out in the cold. Instead of restricting our love to those in our familial circle, Jesus challenges us to expand that circle to encompass everyone. He doesn’t want us to love our families less. He wants us to love others more and regard everyone as family. And he wants us to love what he loves, and make his priorities our priorities. It only seems fair, if we claim to be his followers. I’m not there, but it’s something to shoot for. I love my family very much and this is a hard thing to digest. I don’t think I have the capacity to love everyone equally, but I think it should be my goal as a follower of Jesus. I believe that everyone loves one another equally in the Kingdom of God.
Another problem with family love is that it is transitory. In the end, our families will let us down. Our parents will eventually die and we will be orphaned. Our brothers and sisters will marry and have families of their own. If we raise healthy children they will move out and live their own lives. All of them will love their own families more than they love us. Our spouses may pass away and leave us alone. And in turn each of us will die and leave the ones we love behind. Better to expand our circle of love to include everyone. Better to focus on the one who says, “And I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). Better to focus on the agenda of Jesus and the eternal presence of our loving and faithful God, who will never love anyone else more than he loves each of us.
Don’t be mad at me. Jesus said what he said, and I don’t think it should be ignored. It should be addressed and contemplated even if it clashes up against our thoughts and feelings. I don’t think anything Jesus says should be ignored, which is why I’m doing this blog.
What does this scripture say to you?