Jesus' Family Values
(Readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the feast of the Holy Family. In the gospel Mary and Joseph find the twelve year old Jesus debating with the theologians in the temple in Jerusalem, after being lost for three days. Jesus' answer to his parents highlights the tension that often arise between the ties and expectations of personal family life and our vocation to find and follow God's will.
As we come together as God's family we call to mind our sinfulness and we ask God for his pardon and healing.
I think it's fair to say that most people would identify Christianity as being in favour of the "the family". Various church documents speak highly about the benefits of stable home life and parents duties to educate their children in Christian faith, morals, and religious practice. There's an assumption that the teaching of the gospel promotes harmonious family life, almost at any price.
When we turn to the gospels themselves, a different picture emerges - or a less simplistic one at any rate. Far from being unquestioningly in favour of family life it appears that Jesus often rebelled against it, was sometimes prone to deny the bonds of family life, and encouraged other people to do the same.
When someone in the crowd shouted out in praise of his mother, "Blessed is the woman who bore you", Jesus brushed her appreciation aside, and used her words for his own purpose: "Blessed, rather, are those who hear the word of God and keep it".
When someone brought him a message from his close family, who were getting concerned about his mental state, he dismissed blood relationships as unimportant: "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?" Those who do God's will, he said, are my mother, brothers and sisters - in a more fundamental sense.
And then, in today's gospel reading, we find Jesus, even at the age of twelve, showing no recognition of his parents' anxiety. "Why were you looking for me? My place is here - attending to my Father's affairs".
Why did Jesus flare up almost every time the idea of family obligations were brought up? Why did he say, later on, that no one could be a follower, or a disciple, of him without first hating his mother and father and brothers and sisters?
My own guess - even making allowances for the exaggerated language that Jesus liked to use in his preaching - was that the whole business of family relations was a source of tension or a struggle for him.
It's not so much that his family might or might not have had various expectations of him. The struggle came from his sense of his own identity and vocation."I must be busy with my Father's affairs."
Christ didn't reject the family, or family life, as such. We shouldn't forget the passage at the end of John's gospel where he turns to the disciple John and his own mother and seems to bequeath them to each other, telling them that they belong to each other now and must look after each other.
But he did seem to reject any hint that the ordinary expectations and worldly aspirations that families harbour towards individual members should dictate his or anyone else's course through life. God's plans for each of us might bring us into conflict with those aspirations.
The confrontation in the gospel for today's Mass isn't the kind of argument between parents and a twelve year old son that many of us would recognise: Jesus wasn't demanding a new pair of trainers or a Playstation. He was saying that his sense of God-given vocation, drawing him towards certain priorities and a certain course of action in his life was more important than his role as his parents' son, and he was refusing to have that vocation domesticated or diverted.
The problem with human institutions - and the family is a human institution - is that they can develop a life of their own. Some families have something stifling and self-sufficient about them. They're closed in on themselves. When a man or a woman marries one of the members, they find themselves married to the whole family, not just their husband or wife.
We have to look for the cause of such twisted patterns of relationships in our fallen condition. We don't see straight. Because of weakness, self-centredness, emotional insecurity, people often create patterns in their relationships that are little competitive games rather than expressions of love. And very often it's in our families, with the people we're closest to, that these games and crooked patterns take shape most easily.
Christ knew that families could be sustaining and life-giving, but he knew they could be harmful and crush people as well. He went out of his way to warn people about that and he never romanticised family relationships of treated them as some sort of moral absolute.
Fundamentally, like the rest of his society, Jesus took the family for granted. But he refused to define himself by his family, or to allow other people to define him by his family, - and he told his followers not to define themselves by theirs.
Most of the time there will be no conflict between our vocation as sons and daughters of God and the bonds of conventional family life because in Christian families, ideally, everyone shares the same commitments and priorities.
But where tensions do arise Christ left no one in any doubt which loyalty he regarded as primary. And according to Saint Luke this was something that became clear to him quite early on in his life, and it was a lesson which even Our Lady and Joseph had to be taught by their own twelve year old son.