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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Revising the “Family” Metaphor

Another whole interesting part of the John 11 narrative about the healing of the man born blind is the role of the mother and father.

I only bring this up because, in school masses, the homily inevitably wends toward obedience to mom and dad as being the call of the gospel. Now, being a parent a few times over, I’m as much for obedience as the next guy, but I don’t particularly see it as a gospel value, particularly from a Messiah who expresses his truth, perhaps exaggeratedly, as “anyone who does not hate father and mother” and so on is not worthy of him (see Lk 14:26, and compare Mt. 10: 34 ff.) I’m more with the sense that respect and love for parents is a given, “even the pagans do as much,” and that discipleship in the reign of God calls for a new, more expansive horizon. 

This is where it struck me that this thought ties in with Sunday’s scripture motif, that “God does not see as people see,” and that conversion to the Way of Jesus does not necessarily promote family values in any Republicrat sense of the word. Mom and Dad in John 11 do not rush to the defense of their son, but, not having had the same experience of Jesus as the son has had, distance themselves from the whole mess in order to maintain their status in the community. The son, accustomed to being on the outside of things from birth and accused because of his infirmity of being sinful and outside of God’s favor, has nothing to lose except his blindness and opts to pursue his new truth, wherever it may take him.

The healing apparently took Jesus to the cross. The gospel for today, from John 5, which begins with another Sabbath healing, started with these ominous lines:

For this reason they tried all the more to kill him,
because he not only broke the sabbath
but he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.
The whole family thing in the gospels is sort of suspect. In Mark, his family apparently thinks Jesus is insane, and tries to bring him home. The Lucan gospel midrash about the adolescent Jesus in his trip to Jerusalem where Mom and Dad leave him behind ends with a confrontation that seems to reorient the family relationship before leading to the homeward journey. The references already cited indicate that what we would consider traditional family unity is not the highest value in the gospel. And yet, when it comes to describing his relationship to God and teaching us to pray to that God, the name Jesus gives us is “Abba,” but not just “Father,” - our Father. “Call no one on earth your father - you have one father, who is in heaven.” (Admittedly, Jesus is talking here about his problem with some of the Jewish leaders of his time, but he doesn’t say, “Don’t call him ‘father,’ he’s not your ‘dad.’” He specifically moves from the local to “one father who is in heaven.”)

What I’m getting at here is that “family” is not a particularly good metaphor for church. One of the reasons for that is that the Church is a community of those who are “called out,” the ekklesia, and one of the things we’re called out of is the narrow vision of family into which we are born. Our natural affiliation and prejudice is to the household, and from there its tendrils reach out into the extended family, the community and state. But God is not “my God,” but “our Father.” Not my father, but ours, making us equals. That equality transcends our family, ethnic, and national boundaries. As easy as this is to say, and as beautiful as it is in the ideal, it creates colossal moral questions about war, the environment, and certainly the economy. The “our” of “our Father” doesn’t mean my family, my church, my country, my race, actually, even my planet. It just means “everybody’s.”

Scriptural families are a mixed bag. The whole narrative begins in fratricide. Abraham ostensibly contemplates the murder of his son Isaac. Lot is willing to turn his virgin daughters over to strangers for their pleasure rather than turn over visiting strangers. One of Isaac’s sons cheats the other out of his inheritance. Jacob’s doting on his youngest son upsets the tribal tradition leading to a sideshow of deceit and slavery. David has some problems with his first marriage, and with filial devotion from his son Absalom. I’m sure there’s more. And yet, every time I turn around, someone in the parish is trying to call the parish a family. And I know for a fact that there are a lot of households out there that aren’t “family” in the Republicrat sense of the word, and aspects of “family” values rankle Christians of immense good will with terrible experiences of family, or who simply have made other choices in life to pursue paths of fidelity and service that don’t include wives, husbands, or children, forging different kinds of relationships that become part of the tapestry of ecclesial life.

Language does break down here. What is the metaphor, then, if God is our Father, but we’re not a family? How can we be brothers and sisters, and not be a family? I guess the thing is that we have to keep remembering that it’s a strange family we’re part of, not a cuddly, sit by the fireplace and everybody looks the same family. We’re more like an adopted family, adopted from nowhere, from abject poverty and squalor to a new house where we have the opportunity to make a new life if we can make it together. Yes, we have a Father. Other than that, we’re pretty much strangers who speak different languages but who have been told we’re brothers and sisters and have to start looking out for each other.

The common wisdom is that “blood is thicker than water,” and in this context, I take it to mean that the gospel, symbolized by (baptismal) water, cannot compete with the instincts of nesting and tribal relationship that are born into the blood. Since I believe the gospel, I think that the common wisdom cited above is hooey, but it’s certainly going to be true if what we preach in Church is that we’re a big happy family. It seems to me that that metaphor is exclusionary, it’s an insider-outsider metaphor, and really needs to be constantly nuanced if it’s going to persist in our ecclesial language.

I’d like to think, see, that the man born blind got a chance to tell the whole story, over and over again, to his parents, until they were baptized in their own tears and started a new family together. Just the three of them, at first, but then all the folks they met at the margins who had also been thrown out. None of them had much, but they learned to take care of each other. And what great stories they had to tell!