“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn “ ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
37 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
– Matthew 10:34-39
What startling words from the Prince of Peace! Contrast them with the Confucian doctrine of 礼, where the Five Bonds of relationship are emphasized: ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger, and friend to friend.
As residents of an Asian society like Singapore, the prioritizing of these relationships is not foreign to us. Many of us can identify with a culture that prizes family relationships as one of the most important commitments in life.
To people raised in this general culture, this is a hard saying that seems confrontational and adversarial. Is Jesus saying that the family unit is unimportant? Does this mean that families no longer hold a moral claim on us as Christians?
No! There are numerous instances in Scripture where Jesus upholds the family. For example, in Mark 7:9-13, Jesus firmly defends parents who have been cast aside by their children on the basis of religious devotion.
In Matthew 22:40, Jesus unequivocally states that the greatest commandments are to love God with our whole being, and also to love our neighbour as ourselves. All of the Law and all of the prophets hang on these two commandments.
Ephesians 6:1 reemphasizes the Fourth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.” The author even writes that this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”
So it should be clear to us that the family is very important to the life of the Christian. What could Jesus mean then?
We live in a world pregnant with options. We are sold on a vision of life as a never-ending supermarket of choices, and all we need to do is choose from amongst a variety of equal choices. Religion, we are told, is one such choice. Family is another. And so on.
But this is not true of the Christian faith. Jesus is not simply one choice amongst other equal choices. And that is the point of this passage. Jesus is telling us that as much as family is good, and loyalty is important, He comes first. He is not first among equals. He is unequalled, unrivalled, and unparalleled in history. Everything else is second. Jesus comes first.
The central authority in the Christian family is not the parent but the Parent, not the senior human beings, but God.
To be faithful within the family is not to be faithful to the family unit for its own sake, but to be faithful to God and to follow Christ as a family and within the family. Thus, to pursue Jesus is to seek to obey God more faithfully – sometimes even over the wishes of our relatives. Christ is our all, in all – that includes our families.
Here’s what we can take home from the passage. Your family is important. It might even be the highest of penultimate concerns. But even the family pales in comparison to who Jesus is and what He requires of us.
To truly follow Jesus means to be willing to give up even the good of the family for Him. It is not a matter of choosing Jesus instead of your family – because they aren’t equal choices. For the Christian, Jesus must always come first. But do not fear, because, as Jesus so lovingly and confidently promises: those who give up even their very lives for His sake shall find it in Him. There is nothing that Christ asks us to put down that He will not eventually restore to us marvellously – and that includes our families.
By Pastor Nathanael Goh