If Jesus hasn’t said anything that you disagree with, lately, you might need to revisit the gospels; because some of the things Jesus said were truly disturbing and unsettling. Jesus said some shocking things – even for Jesus! Take this statement from Matthew 10: 34-39:
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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 - a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' "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; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
“Wait a minute,” you say. “That can’t be right. The Jesus I know is all about love and forgiveness and peace. He loves family and wants them to be together, not divide them. There is no way that Jesus would say such stern and terrible words and mean them to be taken seriously. There must be some mistake!”
But Jesus did say these words, and we must seek to understand them on their own terms. Jesus says that he came to bring not peace, but a sword! He did not come to smooth things over and make everything nice; he came to disrupt and confront. He did not come to help us escape from this world; but to send us on a mission to this world. He did not come to buy us a lazy boy; but to enlist us in the battle; a battle in which faith and discipleship to him is the true victory.
The sword that Jesus brings is a sword of division (cf. Luke 12: 51). It slices through the lies, self-deceptions and false-loyalties that fester in every human heart. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus word divides truth from falsehood, the old life from the new, darkness from light; so it should come as no surprise that it can potentially separate us from other people, even our families. For “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (35-37). What does it mean to love Christ more than our family?
First, it means that we honor the 1st commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” That is, we refuse to make an idol of our “family.” Parents, in particular, can become so obsessed with their children’s success that they become an extension of their own egos…they teach their children to live for the best schools, or the best jobs, or the best income, or fame and popularity for their sakes -- not for God's sake. As we grow into adulthood, honoring the first commandment may mean that we seek the counsel of our brothers and sisters in Christ even before the counsel of family members.
Secondly, it means that we honor the 4th commandment. “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” When we make family activities and hobbies and sports more important than worship, we are allowing the world to shape our priorities. We need to recover the blessing of the Sabbath…of the priority of worship in the life of the family. Worship is not a suggestion for the follower of Christ and his/her family; worship is a commandment. Some may think they are building up their families when they neglect Sunday worship; but in reality they are hurting them…because it is God who binds families together.
Just in case you think Jesus has gone completely off his rocker, loving Christ more than family does not (I repeat, does not) give us license to break the 5th commandment: “Honor your father and your mother.” Listen to Jesus’ words: we are to love him more than family; not instead of family. My primary and undivided loyalty to Christ does not permit me to dishonor my family or abuse them or ignore them. Rather, it mandates that I love them for the sake of Christ. In Matthew 15: 1-6, Jesus himself reminds us of the command to honor father and mother and to take care of our parents; and blasts those who neglect to do so for “religious” reasons. In 1 Timothy 5: 8, the Apostle Paul writes that “Whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially family members has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
Nor can we use religious differences as an excuse to abandon our marriages! On the contrary, we are told that the unbelieving spouse can be “consecrated” or “made holy” through the believing spouse (Check out 1 Cor. 7: 12-14). You can and should be a missional presence in your own family. The decision to follow Christ not only separates us from the unbelief of our families, it separates us from indifference and hatred and impatience toward them too. Paul says that by our perseverance in faith, God may use us to consecrate our parents, our spouse, or our family members!
Jesus’ last words in this paragraph are important because they give us hope: “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me….and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (38-39). Jesus calls us to pick up our cross (including the rejection of family); but not without the promise that what is lost will be found. When Jesus says “Take up the cross!” it means the denial of sin and self-centeredness and publicly following him, whatever the cost. Bearing a cross was a public act. Thus, following Jesus can’t be just an inward reality; it must also be an outward reality…and that usually means some kind of sacrifice. This goes not just for individual disciples, but the entire church. For far too long, the church has tried to shape society through worldly power and influence, when Jesus’ model is the way of the cross. We will be most effective in shaping our families and our entire culture when we walk in His way, the way of the cross, of suffering love, the way of self-sacrifice, the way of the servant who leads by humble example rather than through coercion and intimidation.
I’m so glad that after Jesus says, “Take up the cross,” he goes on to say “Follow me!” Why? Because it is the power of Jesus’ royal command to “Follow me!” that enables us to deny self and bear the wonderful cost. At times, following Jesus may look like suicide to our work associates, our classmates, or even our own families; but it’s actually the road to a life that makes sense. I don’t know anyone who understands this better than my wife Lisa whose father Wally rejected her as his daughter when she chose to study at a Christian school of psychology. It didn’t help when she decided to marry a pastor! The rejection she endured was nearly unbearable. It was Christ who gave not only her, but her mother and brother as well, the courage to persevere in loving him and reaching out to him.
Jesus’ final words in this passage give me reason to hope. “Those who try to find (or protect) their life will lose it; but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Whatever we lose (or give up) for Christ’s sake…we have the hope of finding again, says Jesus. Martin Luther said: “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess" -- and that includes our families. When Lisa’s father died, we found a locked file drawer filled with letters and cards that she and her brother had written to him about their faith in Christ. He saved them all, and the file drawer was labeled, “Oh God!” This made sense, because he once admitted to me that he had “hope” that there was a God and that his life was not just an accident. A friend at our church also had a vision, the night before his death, of Jesus meeting Wally on a hillside with love and welcome. Wally was dressed in kaki pants and a work shirt. Imagine her surprise when she learned from Lisa that it was on a grassy hillside that he died as he was doing yardwork – and wearing his trademark kaki pants and workshirt!
On an even more personal note, my own mother was the first member of her family to follow Jesus. She was invited to church by a friend to Sunday School at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. May God bless the faithfulness of that little girl; because through my mom, not only her mother, but years later her sisters and last of all her stubborn father at the age of 94 (who had been so abusive in his early years) all came to trust in the saving grace and truth of our Lord Jesus Christ. I believe that God can truly consecrate an entire family through one faithful man or woman, boy or girl. I believe it…because I’ve seen it happen in my own family! Whatever we may lose for the sake of Christ and his mission, we have the hope of finding again in him and because of him.
There are many things that threaten families today: divorce, illness, issues related to sexual identity, cultural differences, financial problems, or unbelief….but as followers of Jesus if it is our faith in Him that threatens to divide us from our families we should not fear; because it is Christ who raises the dead and has the power to heal broken families. It is Christ who came to bring not only division, but resurrection.