The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (27 June 2010) includes some “hard words” from Jesus (Luke 9:59-62). Jesus calls a man to follow him. The man replies “Lord, first let me go and bury my father”. Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Then another man says to Jesus “I will follow you” but asks if he can first go back and say goodbye to his family. Jesus replies, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
From a family ministry perspective, what are we to make of this text? In both cases, the men make what appear to be very reasonable family-related requests to Jesus – to bury a father and to say farewell to loved ones – but Jesus portrays these as contrary to discipleship. Is Jesus anti-family or family unfriendly? What are we to understand from his words?
One possible approach a reader might take is to regard the men’s requests as virtual excuses. Perhaps the first man’s father was not literally dead but elderly, and the man was asking for “leave of absence” until his father died. Perhaps the second man’s family lived far away, so that “saying goodbye” would involve considerable time and effort. If that was the case, we could see the men’s requests as ways of saying “no” to Jesus while appearing to say “yes”. But with its scarcity of detail, the text does not give us that interpretive option. It is better to take what is there at face value. And in doing so one cannot escape the “shock factor” of Jesus’ words, particularly those directed to the first man. For a Jew, ‘burying a parent took precedence over all other duties and was a considered a chief responsibility of a son’ (Garland & Pancoast, The Church’s Ministry with Families, p. 25). To suggest otherwise was completely unthinkable … shocking to Jewish ears. Moreover, Jesus’ words sound contrary to the Fourth Commandment, the directive to honor one’s parents. Jesus words to the second man also suggested a course of action that would surely have dishonored his parents – simply leaving without any explanations or farewells. Should we then deduce from Jesus’ words that following him means disregarding family relationships or obligations, as if they were irrelevant or unimportant?
I believe the answer has two parts. The first conclusion to draw from Jesus’ words is that all things – however dear or important they are to us – are subordinate to the call to discipleship. It is inappropriate to discipleship to “play off” family against the call of Jesus. [An example from my own ministry experience is a family that put forward a need for “family time” as their excuse for not attending weekend worship] Following Jesus means that all of our ties and relationships are brought under his Lordship. Jesus desires first place in our hearts and on our priority lists, and if other things – even family – make demands that are counter to the reign of God, then they are to be denied.
At the same time, however, it is clear from other statements of Jesus and from his actions that he placed value upon family relationships. In declaring that family should never take precedence over the call of God, Jesus was not deprecating the value of family per se or the need for family members to care for one another. When he came across a funeral procession at the gates of the town of Nain, Jesus did not tell the grieving mother to leave the dead to bury the dead (Luke 7:11—17). His heart went out to the widow, so that he raised her dead son and restored him to her. In Rodney Clapp’s words, ‘Jesus did not expect biological family to be denied or eliminated. He did, however, decenter and relativise it’ (Families at the Crossroads, p. 78).
Family is a good gift of God. But like all good gifts of God, it can be turned into an idol, a created thing that is worshipped in place of the Creator. Jesus’ words challenge all families to consider whether they are living in service of self or in service of the kingdom of God. Families that live for self may need to hear Jesus’ “hard” words as a challenge to their priorities and life choices. But where families are focussed on kingdom purposes they are wonderful contexts for mission and discipleship, as Jesus himself affirmed. In the Gospel reading for last Sunday (20 June), Jesus tells the man delivered from demons to “return home and tell how much God has done for you” (Luke 8:39). Service and proclamation of God’s kingdom in and through the home is essential to the discipleship of any Christian parent. Jesus is not anti-family. He is, however, never content to take second place.