Jesus Hated Family Values

Jesus Hated Family Values by Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett

Blogger at Basileus
Ben is an independent communications and strategy consultant to churches and social enterprises. A graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, his interests are asset-based community development, liberation theology, critical theory, Christian anarchism, trauma studies, and mountain biking. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife Candra and dog Winnie.
Ben Garrett

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The Bible is a weird text. It is written in foreign languages by folks who had radically different lives from our own. It also says weird things. Many of these weird things don’t get talked about in church very often. Every church, every pastor, every Christian has their canon within the canon, the portions of scripture which they rely on more heavily than others. Sometimes, though, our own canon forces us to confront some weirdness. This happens frequently when Jesus says stuff that makes us uncomfortable. Even the most cautious and selective bible readers have had to confront things like Jesus telling folks to give all their money away, turn the other cheek, and apparently encouraging cannibalism, among other things. It’s tough for Christians to ignore the places where Jesus gets weird.

What Christians can, and frequently, do is attempt to water down the weirdness. An effort is made to interpret the text in a way that makes it less alien, disturbing, or demanding. In many cases this warps the passage and drains out the profound and deeply counter-cultural message that might offer us a truth that will set us free.

A passage I have seen subjected to this sort of hermeneutical neutering is Matthew 10:37, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” I remember hearing this for the first time as a child and being shocked, scandalized even. Surely this Jesus guy was not serious about loving anyone more than mommy and daddy. I loved them more than everybody else and knew that I ought to love them that much.

I have heard multiple pastors preach through this passage as if they are attempting to soothe that elementary school version of me. They make it clear we definitely are supposed to love our mommies and daddies but that ultimately we are supposed to love Jesus the most. At its worst the interpretation demands that we somehow feel more about Jesus than our parents. It’s unclear what this is actually supposed to look like and the interpretation also reduces love to a feeling (it’s not). At its most “radical” this interpretation suggests that sometimes what our parents say and what Jesus says will disagree and we need to side with Jesus (remember this is a sermon aimed at a primarily adult audience).

I contend that both of these messages are pathetic substitutes for the liberating scandalousness[i] of Jesus’ teaching on family. Furthermore, Jesus’ repeated assault on that most precious of institutions offers us a message we deeply need today. Jesus is saying that in order for the kingdom of God to be present, in order for us to be followers of the way of life, we must fundamentally rethink our relationships to our families of origin.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus is in conflict with both the notion of family (Mt. 20:34-37, Mt.19:1-10, Mt. 23:9) and his own family (Lk. 2: 42-52, Mk. 3:21). If we move beyond Jesus’ ministry and look at the epistles and the practice of early Christians we see this conflict continuing and becoming institutionalized. The Christians’ decision to address each other as brothers and sisters deeply disturbed the surrounding society. Indeed, because of this practice and that their ritual greetings included kissing, Christians were accused of incest. In his work On Virginity Gregory of Nyssa makes it clear that “marriage” as construed by the Roman Empire necessitates deep reservations. Jesus and his followers were actively engaged in a reorientation of “family values” through their speech and activity.

Why? Why all this fuss over such a noble institution? Surely by striking at the nourishing roots of any civilization we risk killing the entire tree! Well, that’s precisely the point.

In Romans 12, Paul encourages the church in Rome to “conform no longer to the ways of the world…” as a prelude to his discussion about what a healthy church body looks like. In other words, Paul is trying to say that there is direct opposition between the ways of the world and the ways of the Body of Christ. To drive home the point by mixing another metaphor, in the Middle Ages a kingdom and all its citizens were described as part of the king’s body.[ii] Thus, Christians are confronted with the choice to either exist as a member of the King’s body or Christ’s body.

It might sound as though I have shifted my attention from concerns about family to concerns about politics. That is a distinction without a difference. To speak about families is to speak about politics and vice versa. This is because much of who we are politically is shaped by our families of origin. Pete Scazzero makes this clear when he asks, “What messages did you receive about parenting? Gender roles? Marriage? Singleness? Physical affection and touch? How did your family view God, other churches, other faiths?”[iii] Our families do not restrict themselves in terms of the realms in which they instruct us. There is no aspect of reality, be it personal, social, political, religious, artistic, etc., about which our families of origin did not teach us something. This is especially true in the areas where our families were silent. After all, we learn a great deal about “that which must never be spoken about” simply by the fact that it remains unspoken.

What Scazzero shows, following Jesus and Paul, is that these teachings do not always prepare us well for living as healthy members of the Body of Christ.

So far I have only really gotten us to the sermon which says, “Sometimes Jesus and your mommy and daddy will disagree and you need to go with Jesus.” This is important but falls short of the full gravity of the situation and the full meaning of the Christian reorientation of the family relationship. The Christian assault on families is needed today because our inattention to our relationship with our families is killing our radical social movements.[iv]

One of the central claims of adrienne maree brown’s excellent book Emergent Strategies is that human beings are fractal creatures. A fractal “is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.”[v] What this means for us is that the processes we engage in on a micro person-to-person level repeat themselves on a macro societal level.

Brown observes that because we grow up in broken families and broken systems we repeat those patterns in our interpersonal relationships and in the structures we create.[vi] She encourages us to, ““Transform yourself to transform the world.’ This doesn’t mean to get lost in the self, but rather to see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation, and alignment with each other and the planet.”[vii]

Returning to Matthew 10:37 with all this in mind, we now see that Jesus is showing us the way to engage in a truly revolutionizing project. The attempt to form a new kind of community, the attempt to bear witness to the kingdom of God, the attempt to join God in the reconciling of all things to Godself is a project demanding that we simultaneously engage with the baggage we bring with us from our families of origin and the “powers and principalities” of unjust social systems and claiming that these struggles are the same struggle. We cannot hope to create a reconciled world without engaging in reconciliation at all levels of life. Our movements are only as healthy as we are.



Photo by Alvin Engler on Unsplash

[i] St. Paul is beginning his happy dance in the background.

[ii] Foucault explores this in great detail in the opening sections of Discipline and Punish, arguing that the horrifying tortures and punishments exacted upon criminal bodies during this period are the logical extension of this ideology.

[iii] Pete Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, pg. 78

[iv] I am using this phrase to describe both left-leaning and right-leaning movements as both demand radical (at-the-root) changes to our social order.

[v] brown, Pg. 51

[vi] brown, Pgs. 52-52

[vii] brown, Pg. 53