“Do not think 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 one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
How’s that for a Fathers’ Day greeting from Jesus?
I do wonder what prompted the crafters of the lectionary to schedule this reading on this particular day when we celebrate our fathers and the importance of family.
We often hear that we should look to the Bible as the best source of family values.
But if we go to the Bible looking for families to serve as models for our own, we will most likely be disappointed. The first family story in the Bible is about a brother killing a brother.
Today we heard the story of Abraham and Sarah, the great patriarch and matriarch of the Jewish people. But the story is about Abraham’s mistress Hagar and Sarah’s jealousy of that relationship and the child it produced. Hardly something we want to emulate in our own families.
In other words, the families in the Bible are just as dysfunctional as anything we can imagine today. The purpose of these stories is not to give us examples of the perfect family, but to show us that God works through even the most difficult situations; and that even the most faithful people find themselves in need of God’s saving grace.
Well, you might say, those stories are in the Old Testament. We’re talking about the New Testament, about Jesus and what he has to say about families.
Then we hear those words from today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel and they sound like the horror stories from the nightly news, not the gospel.
How could Jesus have said these things? Are they really the words of the good shepherd, the prince of peace, the one who tells us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek?
They are. Jesus is telling us that at times there may be conflicts between family expectations and the word of the gospel.
Jesus knows this in his own life. The few stories we have of interactions between Jesus and his family are not always sweet. Matthew and Luke’s gospels both tell the story of Jesus’ mother and brothers coming to see him. When someone tells him they are there, he does not rush out to greet them.
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. Then he looks around at his followers and replies, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
I’m not saying that Jesus hated his family. When he is hanging on the cross dying, one of his final instructions is for another of his disciples to care for his mother.
But when he perceived that his family might be trying to hold him back, to keep him safe, he pushed back. Nothing, not even his mother’s love and concern, was going to keep him from doing what God had called him to do.
Jesus’ words today are addressed to his disciples, who have given up everything to follow him. He is warning them that the path they have chosen will not necessarily be an easy one.
Watch what happens to me, he says, and know that you cannot expect it to be any easier. And the difficulties will come not just from strangers or those you might expect to be your enemies, but may also come from those you love.
Indeed, in those early days of the church when Matthew’s gospel was written, becoming a Christian was a radical and dangerous, even life-threatening, choice.
Jesus is telling his disciples, past and present, that following him may cause a crisis of loyalty and force difficult decisions. The gospel shakes up values, rearranges priorities, reorients goals. We should not be surprised when it causes strife, even among those we love.
That kind of strife is indeed realistic, but I don’t want it to be the only image of family we hear on this Father’s Day. The love that family members have for one another is a powerful symbol of God’s love for us.
As we remember our own particular fathers today, we also remember that the image of father is one of the most powerful images of God we have in scripture.
We know God like we know our own fathers. The family life we share with each other is a sign of the universal family of God’s creation.
We also know there are times when this image doesn’t work — when our own fathers or we ourselves have not lived up to this God-given role. We know that times fathers have inflicted pain, that at times father and child have indeed turned against one another, so this is also a day to ask for and give forgiveness.
Here again scripture helps. One of Jesus’ most powerful stories of forgiveness is of the father who forgives his wayward son. That is the kind of forgiveness and relationship we can expect from God, and the kind we should aspire to with one another.
When we fall short of that model of love and forgiveness, when our families are afflicted with something like the maladies Jesus talks about in today’s gospel, we are not alone. We still belong to the family of Christ.
Our individual families and our larger family in Christ are both gifts, both graces for which we should be thankful.
Happy Father’s Day.