Turning Family Honor Upside Down

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)

Today is Father’s Day. Christians, however, don’t need Hallmark or Macys to remind them to honor their fathers. Honoring one’s father is commandment number six. Paul quotes the commandment in Ephesians 6:4, part of the haustafel or “household code” of Ephesians 5:22-6:8.

In the ancient culture, honoring one’s father required substantially more than buying a tie or sending a card once each year. The household was the primary social structure and the father sat at the head of it. To honor one’s father was to obey him. Everything that one did in society reflected either honor or shame on the family name. To care for one’s father in old age and to give him an honorable burial in death were paramount.

Within this framework, however, Jesus turned family honor on its head.

On one hand, he denounced the legal tricks that some Pharisees used to keep from supporting their parents financially (Mark 7:9-13). But on the other, he demanded that his disciples’ allegiance to God’s kingdom surpass family loyalties.

To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-62)

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division; for henceforth in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against her mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Luke 12:51-53)

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

The demands of the kingdom put limits even on family honor and loyalty.

But if Jesus demanded that his disciples put the kingdom before family, he also promised that the church itself would serve as something of a new family for those who belong to him.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30)

Jesus, in fact, relativized the importance of the family in a culture in which family honor was everything, and in a religious context in which the extended family was central to the promise of the covenant.

And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Luke 8:20-21)

While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27-28)

Jesus demanded that God’s people honor their heavenly father even more than they honor their earthly fathers. Surprisingly, then, he also taught that the heavenly father was willing to suffer shame and dishonor in order to redeem his people. In his most famous parable, he compared God to a father whose son had privately and publicly dishonored him by asking for his inheritance, leaving home, living immorally and debasing himself with Gentiles. Instead of disowning his son (or even possibly stoning him to death), the father ran to welcome home the wayward son with a feast.

God’s kingdom radically transformed ancient notions of honor and shame. What the world considered honorable might indeed be shameful in God’s sight. And what the world considered shameful might indeed be honorable.

Jesus’ words cracked open the ancient world’s absolutist, rigid, patriarchal family structure. It has taken centuries, however, for the family to evolve in the kingdom’s direction. Of course that doesn’t mean that we abandon family structures altogether. We don’t abdicate responsibility for family life or cease to love the members the family into which we were born. As Paul reminds us, we are still to honor our fathers and mothers. But now, fathers are instructed to avoid using their power to provoke their children to anger. There are probably some other implications that Jesus’ teaching has for the family. Everything that Jesus said and did is relevant to how I live as both the child of my father and the father of my children.