Will the True Bible Family Please Stand Up?

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It is an election year. It is also the Year of the Family. Hillary Rodham Clinton has toured the country since January talking about her family­-centered book, It Takes a Village. The Christian Coalition released its "Contract with the American Family" a year ago.

Everyone is talking about the "breakdown of the family," and everyone can tell you why it's broken. There are too many divorces and too many teenagers having babies. There are too many mothers working outside the home, but many welfare mothers not working outside the home and too many fathers are absent. Gay people are destroying the family. Poverty is destroying the family. Drugs and alcohol are destroying the family.

But there's one reason you probably haven't heard: Jesus is destroying the family. Nobody is quoting today's Gospel reading:

"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." [Matt. 10:35]

Let's skip over this verse and go to verse 40: "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me." After all, hospitality is a central theme in both Old and New Testaments. But it's probably not fair to skip over verses we don't like. (Besides there would be so many.)

Why would Jesus say such a thing? Perhaps scholars can help us here. Most New Testament scholars agree that this passage reflects the reality of what was happening in Matthew's community of believers: families were being divided over commitment to Jesus. Matthew wrote out of this reality of pain and division. As one New Testament scholar explains: "Verses 34-36 are presented in the Semitic perspective that views result as purpose." That is, the result (family division) is presented as though it was Jesus' purpose. Perhaps that sounds like an attempt to get Jesus off the hook, to temper Jesus' harsh words. This interpretation may be wrong, but we don't have to agree to see that these words were encouraging to many; those rejected by their families received assurance that following Jesus was more important, more life­-giving than family ties.

Is this the only thing Jesus said about the family? Did He tell about their values? Jesus spoke out clearly against adultery -- even thinking about it was wrong. Jesus' teaching about divorce called both men and women to stay married -- and He allowed for no legal loopholes! Jesus quoted the Genesis creation story to uphold the lifetime monogamous commitment between a man and a woman. [Matthew 19:5]

But Jesus also said some very strange things about families, including his own. Jesus commended people for leaving families behind. James and John up and left their father to follow Jesus. When someone asked to tend to his father's burial before following Jesus, Jesus said, "Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead." Matt. 9:21-22. When Jesus' mother and brothers wanted to speak to Him, Jesus replied: "Who is my mother and who are my brothers" And pointing to His disciples, He said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." [Matthew 12:46-50] It became clear that Jesus was bringing a new definition of family beyond the bonds of blood and tradition. He treated outcasts as family and called His disciples "children" and "little ones." It is hard to find a portrait of the Christian family in the life and teaching of Jesus.

Indeed it is hard to find such families in the Bible. I realize I am moving into dangerous waters here, but please stay with me. We hear so much about "Christian Family Values" that we assume we could turn to almost any page of scripture and find them. We should also be able to find many examples of what a Christian family is like. But, think about it: what Biblical family would you choose as your model? Abraham fathered children by two women -- Hagar and Sarah. Jacob married Leah and Rachel, and also had children by two concubines. David, Israel's greatest king, will hardly do; he was married and so was Bathsheba when he took her for himself (and made sure her husband was killed in battle.) The man and woman who sing passionate sexual love for each other in Song of Songs were not even married. And one of the most beautiful portraits of love in the Bible is the relationship between David and Jonathan. Love remembered in David's moving lament when Jonathan was killed in battle: "I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan, your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women..." [II Samuel 1:26]

But those stories are from the Old Testament, we say. Then, who would we choose from the New? Joseph surely loved Mary, but we know little of their life together (except their son caused them terrible distress before he was even a teenager). We do have evidence that one disciple, Simon Peter, was married -- because Jesus healed his mother­-in-­law. But that's not much help for the average family. Timothy, one of St. Paul's dearest co­workers, had a Greek father and a Jewish mother. We hear little about his father, but Paul praises Timothy's grandmother Eunice and his mother, Lois, for teaching him the faith. (Was Timothy raised by these two women?) We know of at least two married couples in the Book of Acts. Priscilla and Aquilla were commended as teachers and leaders. Ananais and Sapphira hoarded money that should have been given to the church. They fell dead at the apostles' feet. Now marriage didn't cause their death -- but it surely didn't assure faithful discipleship.

It may seem strange, but it is almost impossible to find a traditional Christian family in the Bible. But someone will surely protest: The Bible wasn't written as a sacred version of "Father Knows Best." The Bible isn't like those magazines in the grocery check­out line -- "Seven Simple Steps to the Perfect Family." No, the Bible isn't like that. Then how can some people speak with absolute certainty about "Christian Family Values?" Where did they find them and how do they know?

If we are honest (and I hope we can be) we will acknowledge that our family values are shaped by many memories of our own childhood (happy or tragic), the neighborhood where we grew up, our personal reactions to gay people, our relationship -- or lack of contact -- with people of different races, our Sunday School lessons. All of these things have shaped us and our values. Because of these factors, we feel that some families are better than others. We feel some cannot be valued at all. But personal feelings are not the same as Christian values.

Our sense of fairness may be a far cry from the Biblical prophets; call for justice, and our rigid family boundaries not even close to the teachings of Jesus. We need to be at least as humble as St. Paul was when he struggled with the Corinthian church over matters of sexual morality. "Now concerning virgins," he wrote, "I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion..." Such humble honesty is refreshing!

If we claim authority from the Bible, we need to know what the Bible says. And what it doesn't say.

Jesus said many different things about families, including his own. Some of what Jesus said will affirm our feelings and opinions about the family. Jesus said other things that will challenge every assumption and cause us to feel uneasy. He realized the ultimate importance of family and expanded the definition of what a family could be. To many, this was threatening and divisive. To others it was an invitation to new life and forgiving love.

"Those who find their life will lose it," said Jesus, "and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." Such teachings would never get anyone elected...but Jesus will still be with you -- and with your family -- when this campaign is over. That?s how the Gospel of Matthew ends: "Lo, I am with you always, even to the close of the age."

O God, you have said it is not good that we should be alone; you sustain us within the embrace of families and circles of friendship. Bless and keep all families in your care, and open our hearts to honor all your children as sisters and brothers.

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