To be sure, Jesus’ words and teachings often surprised, stunned, or even angered His listeners. The breaking in of the Kingdom of God into this world is often unsettling and even shocking. Among the more disturbing and astonishing words of Jesus are those involving the family.
In this paper, I will examine two events that seem to suggest Jesus’ disdain for families. After reviewing these two occasions in the Bible, I will attempt to interpret them by placing Jesus’ words into the context of the ordering of one’s life as well as the necessary conditions of discipleship.
God And Family
The first derisive statement of Christ regarding the family that I will examine appears in the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. In this discourse, Jesus makes a startling and even impossible demand of anyone wishing to be His disciple. “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Before attempting to interpret this verse, it is prudent to understand who the author was, as well as the context and purpose of the text. A physician by training, Saint Luke was the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. As a traveling companion to Saint Paul, Luke had direct access to the apostles and other accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Luke’s audience was likely gentiles and wealthier Christians in an urban setting who were at risk of becoming complacent. As such, Luke’s Gospel often takes on the purpose of challenging believers to put their faith into practice.
The second statement that I shall touch upon appears in Matthew’s Gospel. In this example, the father of a disciple has died, and the disciple wishes to attend to family matters. “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But Jesus answered him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”
Matthew was a Jewish tax collector called to follow Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is decidedly Jewish in its approach, seeking to show that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by the Jewish Scriptures.
Having sought to provide some context, I turn now to interpreting Jesus’ statement.
The first step in understanding these apparently harsh interactions between Jesus and His followers is to note the frequency of hyperbole or exaggeration in the Hebrew language. At times, Jesus makes use of these rhetorical devices to express His literal meaning. (See Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. 1986).
So while these statements should be understood as examples of hyperbole, we must not assume that there is not a more profound and more significant theological theme involved. It seems to me that both of these verses are intended to convey two different yet related points that are paramount for Catholics.
The first lesson that may be discerned from the two verses is the necessity of properly ordering one’s life. And the proper ordering of one’s life means placing God at the center. If I may indulge in a poor but hopefully enlightening metaphor, we can think of each individual life as a solar system. A properly ordered life would have God as the center (i.e., the sun) and each aspect of one’s life (i.e., the planets) revolving around God.
How does a Catholic properly order his life to God? First, one should commit to praying multiple times throughout the day. Partake of the sacraments, particularly Communion and Reconciliation. Additionally, as Catholics, we should seek to live out the Beatitudes. Finally, we should strive to be witnesses to Christ. This can be done through a life of charity.
The second lesson that seems to be evident from the two verses is that one must pay a price to follow Christ. There is indeed a cost to discipleship. For those of us living in the West, we can often take for granted the price many have paid and continue to pay for their faith. As anyone who has studied the lives of the apostles of Christ knows, all twelve suffered because of their faith in Christ. Suffered unto death, in many instances.
As Catholics, we are called to follow Christ. While most of us will never be asked to pay the heavy price that the apostles paid, we must be prepared for the cost.
Both of these instances of Jesus’ words are meant to place one’s life in the proper order. This involves subordinating the various aspects of one’s life, including one’s family, to those that involve one’s relationship with God. In both cases, Jesus preached about the cost of discipleship. The person that could not place Jesus first in his or her life was not able to be his follower. The underlying theme in both of these statements is Jesus seeking to show that we cannot have split priorities. As He says elsewhere, “No man can serve two masters.”
Discipleship requires not only that we follow Christ, but also that we seek to reveal Christ to others. In other words, through our struggles and the consequences of faith, Christ is present to us and to those who see us.
In this paper, I have examined two events in which Jesus seems to disparage the family. I have sought to show that in both cases, the point of Jesus’ harsh tone is to awaken us to the necessity of prioritizing God above all our possessions and relationships. Only then can we be called true disciples of Christ.