We who seek to be Jesus’ faithful disciples must be very careful not to put words in Jesus’ mouth that he did not speak. We cannot promote what we wish Jesus might have said, but, to the best of our ability, we must accurately reflect what he did say. Nowhere is this caveat so needed as in the area of “family values”—an area fast becoming the hottest battlefront in the American culture wars.
Religious groups, PACs, and political candidates not only promote a return to “traditional family values” as the antidote for most ills afflicting American society, but—if “Bible-believing”—can claim to have Jesus’ endorsement of their social agendas. Yet, when we turn to the Bible itself, it is disconcerting to be unable to find chapter and verse backing up all these claims. It can be equally disconcerting to read what Jesus actually said about families. For example, what do we make of passages in Matthew 10 and Luke 12 where Jesus declared he has not come to bring peace but a sword, then gives concrete examples of families torn apart by his teachings? We are comfortable with worshiping Jesus as Prince of Peace—but what about Jesus as Divider of Families?
Jesus seemed strangely insensitive to blood relationships (Mark 3:31-35) and to family rituals (Luke 9:59-62). And in contrast to our emphasis on making the most careful monetary provision for our families, Jesus put no emphasis on financial security but a great deal of emphasis on financial risk-taking (Luke 12:22-34).
In addition, although many today would offer social-welfare programs only to people conforming to traditional family models, Jesus overturned such conventional wisdom by reaching out to help all in need, regardless of family standing or whether a person was a so-called productive member of society.
Jesus also called men and women to leave their families and to follow him for extended periods of time. It is too easy to say that none of these had spouses or dependents to think about. Of the Twelve, we know Peter was married (Mark 1:30; see also Luke 18:28). In the larger group of disciples traveling with Jesus, Joanna was a wife (Luke 8:3). What did their families have to say about Peter’s and Joanna’s prolonged absences? How does their behavior fit with any family-values system that denotes the husband as dependable wage-earner with a stay-at-home wife, both of whom make family time their top priority?
And what about the notion that traditional family values include a gender hierarchy within marriage, with the husband being the chief decision-maker? Nothing Jesus taught suggests he supported a leader-follower pattern for the spouses (or for men and women in general). Contrary to Jewish law, Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark 10 places wives on an equal basis with husbands. Jesus cited the Creation ideal to emphasize the unity of the two-become-one in marriage, not a hierarchy of husband over wife. In Matthew 19, this egalitarian point was not lost on Jesus’ first audience. To paraphrase the men’s reaction: “If we have so little control over getting rid of our wives, who wants to get married?” Then as now, Jesus’ call to lifelong monogamous fidelity and to mutual responsibility and accountability in marriage sets standards many would prefer to ignore.
Furthermore, Jesus lays bare the selfishness of adult children who give lip service to the fifth commandment while dishonoring their parents in actual practice (Matt. 15:1-9). He exposes the hypocrisy of people who make an outward show of sexual morality while harboring private immorality (Matt. 5:27-30).
It can be tempting to use Jesus’ words to point out the arrogance of other people in this volatile area of family values: to name those politicians who court the evangelical vote while glossing over their own flawed marital or parental history, to expose those who decry antifamily media productions while hiding their own personal investments in those same ventures. However, if we’re honest, we come to realize that we are in danger of using our own “hit list” of family values to point out the shortcomings in others while remaining blind to our own failures. We need to hear Jesus’ rebuke: “What is that other person to you? You follow me.”
So we cannot evade the fact that while Jesus said little about so-called family values, he had a great deal to say about Kingdom values such as compassion, generosity, justice, integrity, love, humility, righteousness, self-sacrifice, simplicity, nonviolence, and above all, complete devotion to following him—a devotion so intense that family affections pale in comparison (Matt. 10:37-39; Luke 14:26-27).
Granted, it would have been easier for us if Jesus had set down a nice, definitive family-values list. But the One who searches the thoughts and intents of our hearts knows us too well for that. With our human penchant for minimizing the demands of discipleship, we would have slid into a sterile legalism by upholding that list and that list alone. No; Jesus makes a much sterner demand on his disciples than mere list-keeping. Jesus confronts us with the larger area of Kingdom values and, as in Luke 6:46, still says to each one of us: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?”