For all the talk recently in our country about "family values," we find ourselves in a distressingly uncomfortable situation listening to Jesus' teachings today. How much more startling this Gospel lesson must have seemed to the ancient people to whom Jesus was preaching. They didn't argue about "family values" as we do. They lived them. The family was so much a cornerstone of their thinking, and the individual so far less important than it is to us, that this teaching would have surely sounded harsh and offensive. Does it shake us a little bit? Are we tempted to shrug our shoulders at this passage by claiming that Jesus was only exaggerating to make a point?
Jesus' point is not merely an abstract philosophical or theological argument. It hits home, literally. It is personal, because Jesus was speaking from experience. The Gospels give us glimpses at the strained relationship Jesus has with his own family: his sometimes troubling denial of their needs and the appeals of his fellow townspeople for him to return home and attend to his own. Even during his childhood, his parents find him in the temple rather than making the pilgrimage home from Jerusalem with his family. The enormous strain Jesus' ministry places on his relationships, particularly with his mother, lays an almost daunting problem before us. The Gospel can cost our families and us dearly.
A high school friend grew up in a family of atheists. They were hard workers, enormously productive, running a restaurant in our hometown. But as my friend matured, she began to discover a large spiritual void in her life, one that could not be filled even with her large intellect, her awareness of the history of her Chinese ancestors, or her understanding of her people's folklore and wisdom. By the time she reached high school, she had turned to Christianity. God planted in her an enormous faith. But as the depth of her walk with Christ increased, she found herself increasingly estranged from her family, at odds with her parents. God's call inserted a sword directly into the middle of the family unit, dividing the faith of a child from the faith of her parents.
The church's common lectionary uses an alternate reading for today's Old Testament lesson. It tells a familiar story from Genesis (22:1-14)-one similar to that of the high school friend, only the characterization is reversed, and the nature of the call is even more difficult. Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham obeys reluctantly, and takes Isaac to a mountaintop, where he dutifully prepares to offer him. But as he draws out the knife to kill Isaac, God's angel calls to him, telling him to spare his child, saying, "I now know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." In this ancient story, God again hits hard at our "family values," shattering some of the notions we treasure about putting our children first. Abraham's faith in God, the story tells us, must supersede everything, even the love for his own son.
What we find in these accounts is the consistency of God's call to the entire human family throughout history. From the depths of ancient times to first-century Palestine and even up to our own day, God insists on demanding everything of us. For us in Western culture, we often end up believing that this only means ourselves-just our own hearts and minds. How many of us have been confronted with the question, "Are you saved?"
But God wants more. Our material possessions, our jobs, our recreation, and even our families are all to be placed beneath God's calling to us. We are asked not only for our own selves, but for everything and everyone our lives touch. We are asked to give it all up and offer it to God. That is what we mean when we talk about becoming a living sacrifice. It is what Abraham understood when he tied Isaac to the altar. It is what Jesus did when he gave up the quiet life of a peasant craftsman.
All of this begins to sound very much like the vows made by men and women entering monastic and cloistered religious orders. It should come as no surprise that anyone who has taken a vow of chastity, poverty, and obedience understands these passages thoroughly.
But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who feel called to marry, called to raise a family, and those of us called to hold down a job and do the hard work of living in our society?
For us, this Gospel passage becomes even more perplexing when Jesus calls us to serve our neighbors:
Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.
Surely we have no closer neighbors than our own children, our spouses, and our extended families! And surely this passage implies that we are rewarded for attending to their needs. And yet, Jesus at the same time has told us that the Gospel will set us against the very people we hold nearest and dearest!
The story from Genesis begins to shed light on this confusing contrast that Jesus has painted. Abraham, despite his terror, obeys the voice of God calling him to sacrifice his only son. For Abraham, this is a sacrifice that simply makes no sense. Isaac, his only son, is the promise God made to Abraham in the flesh. Isaac is to be the forebear of Abraham's descendants, who God promised will be as numerous as the stars of heaven. To Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac means not only the destruction of a cherished son, but also the terrible eradication of God's promise-a complete annulment of the vision God had brought him.
God knows that this promise means everything to Abraham. Like many ancient nomads, Abraham places all his hope of conquering death in his descendants. However, God also knows the danger that this poses to Abraham's faith. Clinging to this promise, or more likely, Isaac himself could easily consume Abraham's attention so completely that Abraham would forget to honor God.
Christ knows that we run the same risk in all our lives. The things we cherish most from our work to our families to our golf games can often draw our attention to the point that we forget the larger picture. In the ancient biblical texts, this sort of cherishing without proportion is known as idolatry. And if we think that we're not practicing it today, we had better take a harder look at ourselves. We know all the extreme cases of this idolatry in the family: parents who spoil their children. We know children who take dictatorial control of their parents' lives, holding them hostage emotionally.
But we also know in our jobs our tendency to become workaholics. In our free time we often over-indulge ourselves with food and drink. For our entertainment, we are prone to be obsessed with violence, with guns, with our hobbies, with money, or with the latest fashion trend. God's question is, are we truly willing to give all these things up if we are called to do so?
This is the problem Jesus points to in today's Gospel. Jesus' assertion is as simple as the Genesis story about Abraham. We are called to place our faith in God always first in our lives. We must serve our work, neighbors, family, and ourselves only in the name of serving Christ, so that God remains central at every point in our journey.
Hearing God's call first brings perspective back to our relationships with each other. Parents begin to acknowledge their children as a gift from God to be cared for and nurtured, but not idolized. Children recognize an even greater authority in their own lives, and it helps them to recognize the humanity of their parents and to serve Christ in that humanity. For brothers and sisters in the church community, this perspective brings us to look outward. Rather than idolizing ourselves we begin to view the greater picture and serve those who are in need both on the inside and the outside of our circle.
And the beauty of this Gospel is that God provides when we get our priorities straight. God, at the end of story in Genesis, provides a sacrificial ram to take the place of Isaac. Isaac is left unscathed to become the beginning of God's promise that will later form the nation of Israel. Paul, in today's reading from Romans, promises us ultimate freedom from sin and death when we give ourselves up to the Resurrection of Christ. Jesus promises us a community transformed by our relationship with God. He tells us that this new community is not only hospitable, but that it will bless the world with righteousness, prophecy, and love. And just as important, it is a community where relationships are encouraged to become healthy and mutually supportive.
My friend from high school learned about the sword that the Gospel can bring into a family. But the reward of her coming into relationship with God was a deeper love for all of creation, including her own parents. Despite the initial estrangement, she continued in faith to help with the family business all through high school, and she loved her parents in a deeper, more generous way than she had before turning her faith to God. There can be no question that God's call, when we follow it faithfully, asks us to give up the loves of our lives. But this is only because God wishes to restore those loves and fill them with the presence of the Spirit, making them greater and healthier than they ever were before.