This is part two of a two part essay on the changing face of family in American culture and the implications those changes have for ministry within the Church. You can read part one here.
A NEW VISION OF FAMILY
Scholar John Dominic Crossan has observed that Jesus is often depicted as attacking what many today might term “family values.” Though there are many biblical texts to which we could turn, two are particularly instructive for understanding Jesus‘ vision of “family“ in the realm of God: Mark 3:31-35 and Matthew 10:34-38.
In the passage from Mark, the reader is presented with a concept of family that does away with biological ties. Here Jesus sees those who follow him to be a new kind of family, one that even takes the place of blood ties:
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."
In this passage, attachment to the biological family is seen as a possible danger to one’s commitment to discipleship. This was no academic issue for disciples who found themselves in the position of having to leave family, village, and traditions behind in order to follow Christ. Jesus makes it clear that family is not defined as one into which you are born, but one which you choose and which is open to all. It is interesting to note that in this passage there is no reference to father, neither in the announcement of the arrival of Jesus’ family, or in his new definition of family. Some scholars interpret this to be an acknowledgment that only God is to be the father of the community of believers. In this respect, Jesus is defying the political and social structures of his day that placed the human father at the head of the household. Christian community then was to be founded not on the Roman Empire’s notion of society and familial structure but was to emerge as a new form of family that valued committment to Christ over blood ties.
Matthew 10:34-38 offers an even more biting attack on the traditional family structure in the Roman Empire:
"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; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Often this passage is seen as referring to familial tensions between believers and non-believers because early followers of Jesus often had to chose between family and faith. However, Crossan offers a more insightful viewpoint that takes into account Jesus’ new vision of family. The typical Mediterranean family might consist of mother, father, a married son and his wife and an unmarried daughter. It was a hierarchical system in which each person was answerable to someone else, with the men occupying the highest places of power. Matthew (perhaps taking a cue from Micah 7:6) depicts Jesus attacking this hierarchical system of family life that was a product of Roman society. The division is not between those who believe and those who do not. Rather, it is a division across both gender and generations. Argues Crossan: “Jesus sets parents against children and wife against husband, sets, in other words, the Kingdom against the Mediterranean [culture].”
For Jesus, the ideal family is not one established by society, built upon power relationships and the support of the surrounding culture. Rather it is a vision of family that transcends previous relationships and calls one beyond ties of blood and law to embrace the entire community as “family.” In his deconstruction of hierarchy, perhaps Jesus is also calling us to dispense with our own hierarchical systems which allow us to idealize one form of family to the exclusion of all others.
Jesus’ radical vision of an all-encompassing family of God opens the door for the Church to claim a new understanding of community, not based in biology but in Jesus’ vision of a family open to the diversity of all God’s children. The Church’s call to “koinonia” or communion is the call to gather around God’s table from of all our different walks of life and family structures. It is the call that invites us to see that, ultimately, it is the saving grace and love of God through Christ which binds us together. Single, married, divorced, adopted, widowed, gay, lesbian, partnered, and blended and nuclear family – our real goal should be to embrace all people into God’s family and to celebrate the many ways God has brought us together into community and relationship with one another.
Note: To read more, see Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan (Harper Collins, 1994).