24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For 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; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever 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; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
I recently spoke to the mother of a teenager who was taken to our Emergency Room after having an angry outburst at school. She tearfully reported that her son’s attitude had become unbearable since he had turned 13, saying, “It’s like he’s been replaced with another kid; the other day he told me he doesn’t love me—can you believe it?”
I then asked her what she was like at age 13; when she said that didn’t matter, I told her that my parents found me quite “unbearable” at that age: whenever they invited guests and expected me to sit in the room with them, I’d completely ignore them and refuse to participate in their small talk. One day after the guests had gone home, my mom confronted me, “You could at least pretend to be interested!” My response was, “I hate you, mom.” When she said my attitude must be the devil’s doing, I responded with the favorite one-word sentence of all teenagers everywhere: “Whatever.”
I told the young man’s mother that what she experienced was quite normal—one of the developmental tasks of a teenager is to make first steps toward independence from their family. At that point, she shook her head and said, “This world is so full of trouble, I just want to protect him from it all.”
That mother’s impulse to keep her child from a world filled with discord and trouble is understandable. The same impulse seems to be behind the rallying cry from conservative ministers and politicians to restore the family, under the heading of “family values”. They claim that the joy and love of “a good family” can only be guaranteed by “good churches” which will shield the family from the evils of society (such as abortion, divorce, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, atheism and evolution).
While they place the human family onto a pedestal, others are more skeptical. Since Sigmund Freud revolutionized our understanding of human beings, we know of the potential destructiveness of families. When a family supports injustice, oppression and abuse, the pressure to conform will often cause the members to transmit these “family values” to the next generation. Jesus seems to agree with that skeptical view.
He spoke of the family’s worth as a creation of God, but also made it clear that its importance is not absolute. He told a would-be disciple who wanted to honor his deceased father, “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60). When his own family came to see him, he said, as he looked at the other people standing around, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31–35).
Now consider Jesus’ words in Sunday’s gospel lesson from Matthew. Luke’s version of this passage (Luke 14:26) goes further still: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
How could Jesus (who taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves) be so hard on parents? The answer to that question is hinted at in the story of King Presenjit and the Buddha.
King Presenjit came to the Buddha with a problem: “I would like to become your disciple, but my old mother may feel hurt—she is too old.” When the king was sitting in front of Buddha, one of his disciples (called a sannyasin) came by, touched Buddha’s feet and said, “I am going on a long journey. Bless me, please.” Buddha looked at Presenjit and said, “This man is the answer to your question. He has killed his father and mother both!” King Presenjit was disturbed and thought: How can Buddha entertain a man who killed both his parents? The king said, “You praised that man even though he is a murderer!” Buddha smiled and said, “I mean he killed them metaphorically; what this sannyasin has learned is to kill his clinging and his dependence”.
That’s what Jesus means when he says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” He does not mean that we should literally hate our parents, but that we need to uproot our tendency to cling and attach to what we know in order to become mature, centered, and grounded people. When the disciples argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus placed a small child before them as an answer, to indicate that what matters first is to become like children and recognize our utter dependence upon God.
Because Jesus expects his disciples to give him priority, biological families can’t play first fiddle any more. What Jesus envisions is nothing less than a new social order, an all-encompassing community based on discipleship, rather than biological ties, where people are more valued than possessions, and love for our “natural” kindred gives way to serving everyone around us, even those most unlike us.
When the first Christians spread the good news across the Mediterranean world, their witness contrasted sharply with the promiscuity and decadence of Roman society. Widows and orphans were cared for, and no one was in need. Entire congregations shared everything they had. Husbands learned self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Women were honored as equal heirs of salvation.
Jesus names the two things most precious to us, our family and our own life: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, … yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. … Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” You notice this is not just a call to be free, but a call to the way of the cross.
Jesus aligns our mission and fate with his own: humiliation, suffering, shame, opposition, and death. Taking up the cross implies standing with the marginal people against the imperial authority of Rome, and proclaiming Jesus as Lord. Taking up the cross implies professing the values of God’s reign (see Matthew 5); rather than emphasizing the human family, Jesus says the movers and shakers in his new society will be those who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who are merciful, who are pure in heart, who are peacemakers, and who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Many of our NYC churches will have Pride Sunday Services on June 25, because that is the day of the 2017 LGBT Pride March. The idea of a new society not built on blood bonds deeply resonates with us in the LGBT community. As lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people who have “hungered and thirsted for righteousness” in our homes and churches, we have often found ourselves cast out by those who claimed to be our families, simply for being who we are.
Rejected and abandoned, we have found new families that love us the way God made us. We as a community are living proof that the old oppressive society with its emphasis on the biological family is inadequate; yet, under the pretext of protecting the family, conservative politicians are attempting to roll back LGBT rights, with seventy bills proposed in state legislatures since January.
The damage caused by those who use “family values” to oppress our community pains the heart of God. As we gather this Sunday around Scripture, song and sacrament, let us bring our lives into the presence of the One who loves us, chooses us, and blesses us the way we are. Let us bring our brokenness and pain to the One who sees us as we are and calls us into a journey of transformation and grace. Let us bring our thanks to God, for giving us companions on the journey, for giving us back life, abundant life, this day and all days.
For gay and for straight, a place at the table, a covenant shared, a welcoming space,
a rainbow of race and gender and colour, for gay and for straight, the chalice of grace,
and God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, (justice and joy),
yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace.
Shirley Erena Murray
Fritz Wendt, M.A., M.Div., LCSW-R, a native of Northern Germany, is a Lutheran pastor, psychotherapist and church musician living in New York City. He works full-time in the Pediatric ER and Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Harlem Hospital.