Family Politics

Out at the prison bible study we recently worked through this provocative passage in the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 10.34-38
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household."

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 
It's a perplexing text. We have the Prince of Peace saying "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." More, Jesus goes to to say that he has come to turn family members against one other.

Our enemies will be our family members.

Many interpreters have given their opinions about this passage. I don't intend to review those but simply share a point I made out at the prison.

When we think of families as we approach this text we tend to think of American families of, say, a father and a mother and some children living in a home. And when we think of family in this way Jesus's teaching seems strange and harsh. Why would Jesus turn the people in a home against each other?

We can think, of course, of the early Jesus followers, how their decision to confess Jesus as the long awaited Messiah would have set them at odds with their families. That would have been difficult to do. So Matthew, we can surmise, inserts this teaching to help these converts: the conflict you are experiencing in your Jewish homes is to be expected.

I think that's right, but I also think there is something else going on here. Specifically, ancient Israel didn't think of families the way we Americans think of families. I like said, when Americans think of families they think of a mom and a dad with a few kids out in suburbia. But when the Israelites thought of family they thought of something more extended, they thought of clans and tribes.

More, they thought of an entire nation.

That's the thing we tend to miss, how the nation of Israel was one big family. All descended from the same father, each tribe associated with one of his sons. Everyone related. Israel was a political nation, but it was also one big family.

In short, when Jesus is talking about "loving father or mother more than me" he's not just talking about the intimate sphere of the home. When Jesus talks about family there is something bigger at stake. Because of the way family and nation were conflated in the life and history of Israel when Jesus takes on family he's also taking on tribal and national allegiances, the very fabric of ancient Near Eastern society.

Jesus wasn't just talking about how you treat your mom and dad. That's too narrow a view. Don't think of the American family.

Jesus was speaking about how his Kingdom proclamation would shake nations--socially and politically--to their very foundations.

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