Family is an important topic in the Gospel of Matthew. The book opens with a genealogy, and among the 42 fathers in Jesus’ lineage four notable mothers are also named, plus of course his mother Mary. In fact, the word mother occurs more in Matthew than in any other Gospel.
In Matthew Jesus quoted Mosaic laws about honoring parents and not cursing them. He even rebuked religious leaders for creating loopholes that released them from providing financial support to their parents.
Amongst all this focusing on the family, some other things Jesus said seem almost paradoxical. After speaking on the imminent persecution of his followers, he ended this way:
“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 a person’s enemies will be those of his 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 his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Matthew 10:34-38 (ESV)
With a subsequent reference to leaving “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands” for his name’s sake (Matthew 19:29, ESV), it’s clear that although family is important it must play second fiddle to Jesus.
Like you, I love my family. Family nurtures us, teaches us, supports us, loves us. Today’s younger generation enjoys especially close family ties. College students call home more than ever before, and many young adults are forced by the lousy job market to move home. Tens of thousands across theU.S.are blessed by loving parents who are helping them get by in rough times.
Yet, there is a sense in which even the best of family relationships can interfere with our spiritual relationships. We are unlikely to face the life-endangering betrayal predicted in Matthew 10, but in growing up we must face the fact that sticking too close to family can get in the way of sticking close enough to Jesus.
For example, parents may impose on adult children their own materialistic dreams for financial success. Or maybe they can’t quite let go of control. Sibling dynamics can stay mired in adolescent mode well into adulthood. Sons and daughters can consume parents with their daily drama. Families may have issues with manipulative control, financial dependence, physical illness, or emotional dysfunction. Family religious beliefs may differ markedly from our own.
Sometimes we can’t truly take up the cross until we leave family, at least in certain aspects. I had to do that myself several years ago. It was a painful decision to make, but I left my parents’ conservative, legalistic denomination in favor of a freer, grace-embracing group of believers. I will never regret following Jesus down this path. I wish, though, that my parents could have accepted my choice without feeling so devastated. I am glad they still love me, but our formerly close relationship has been irrevocably altered.
Family really is precious. We love our family members, respect and honor them, enjoy them, desire their favor, and want what’s best for them. Without them, it can feel like our hearts are left with a gaping hole.
So maybe when we must choose between him and them, Jesus made things a bit easier by redefining family: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). Remembering that Jesus is family too, we have the courage to take up the cross and follow.