A couple of weeks ago, a quite curious court case made the headlines: a couple in upstate New York sued their 30 year-old unemployed son to move out of their house. They had asked him repeatedly to pack his things and leave, become independent, to get a job and a life, but he refused. The parents even offered their son financial assistance so that he might pay the first month’s rent for an apartment. But apparently the son thought that his parents owe it to him that they put him up as long as he doesn’t feel the urge to live on his own. And, by the way, he hadn’t lifted a finger in the 8 years he lived in his parents’ place.
Now it’s not uncommon these days that young people live with their parents or rely on them in other ways. In fact, 80% of all young people 30 years or younger receive some sort of material support from their parents in the U.S. That was still different 20 years ago. Astronomic costs of living and the immense burden of student loans prevent young folks today to strike out entirely on their own and to be as independent as the generations before them.
But in the case of the family in upstate New York, apparently the son outright abused his parents’ support. And the judge in that case sided with the parents and ordered the son to pack his stuff within a week and leave his parents’ house, that he had been given repeated and sufficient notice to leave the premises. The 30 year-old announced he would appeal this court order. In the end, he complied. Needless to say, there are lots of hard feelings on both sides, and it doesn’t look like this family is going to reconcile any time soon.
Now this of course is an extreme example of – let’s put it mildly – complicated family dynamics. But in general, family relationships are tricky. There’s just so much going on. I once heard the, in my opinion, very accurate remark: Every family is dysfunctional. The question is, to which degree.
And it’s easy to see, why that is: in a family, you have a group of people who are thrown together, not necessarily by choice, but by the fact that somehow they are related, be it by blood or by law. There may be a clash of personalities. Beyond that, issues or even conflicts are prone to arise whenever people live closely together and have dealings with one another. But that’s not all bad: only, where there is friction, where there are challenges, there is a chance of development and growth.
Even Jesus’ family isn’t immune to complicated dynamics and struggles. In today’s gospel, we hear about another roughly 30-year-old who is not living up to his family’s expectations: Jesus. Now here we have the opposite issue of the young man in upstate New York: Jesus moved out, he struck out on his own, he followed his heavenly Father’s calling – and his family, and especially his mom, Mary, isn’t happy.
Now the circumstances are quite different from the case I mentioned earlier: as the oldest son and after the death of the family patriarch – Joseph -, Jesus is the head of his family. He runs the family business as a carpenter. He’s in charge, he’s responsible for his family – and especially for his widowed mother, Mary. Women had no rights whatsoever in Jewish society, they couldn’t own property, and always had to be under the guardianship of a male – be it their father or, if the father died, another male relative, their husband, or their oldest son. A widow without an adult male relative to take care of her was utterly vulnerable. That’s why, repeatedly, we read in the Mosaic Laws that widows and orphans are to be protected and taken care off by society.
For Mary, it’s about more than Jesus just going off and starting a life as a wandering preacher: it’s about her status, it’s about the stability and the reputation of the family, where everyone has their responsibilities. Now it sounds like Mary has more grown-up sons, and she isn’t desperate, but in her eyes, Jesus is shirking his duties as the head of the family. In addition, he’s, and by implication his entire family, has become a laughingstock – what a shmuck, to abandon the place in society he belongs, and to claim to be a rabbi. He’s gone insane!
To Mary and her family, Jesus must be an absolute disappointment, an embarrassment. No wonder they try to talk some sense into him and get him back to the place where they think he belongs. How can they understand that Jesus’ place in life has changed so dramatically through the call of God’s Holy Spirit?
Jesus is breaking radically with tradition and societal order. But he doesn’t just do away with the old: he creates a new order, a new chance for people who are not secured by biological family ties – outcasts, widows, foreigners, prostitutes, misfits – to become part of a different kind of family, with God as the heavenly Father of all. In a lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans from a couple of weeks ago, we heard the line that, through the Holy Spirit, we become children of God, the Father, and as children, we become heirs. That’s revolutionary, if you consider that many, who were attracted by this new Christian faith, had no status and no right to inherit anything, like slaves, and, yes, women. This is a radically new order, a family that is open to all and where all have the same standing. Who is my mother and my brothers, Jesus asks. Here, here are my mother and my brothers and sisters. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.
And this is a special gift: this vast family beyond our biological families. We could walk into many Christian churches in this world, and hopefully we’d be welcomed as family – because we all share the same heavenly Father and our brother, Jesus Christ. There is a kinship that transcends ethnicity, language, and background. And I for one was grateful that, in my teenage years, when things were not always so great with my family, I found family in church youth groups back in Germany. I, for one, was grateful when I moved here to California, leaving family and friends behind, and was warmly welcomed into the Lutheran neighborhood church, finding brothers and sisters here, family far away from home.
Which brings me back to a statement I made earlier. Every family, even the Christian family, is dysfunctional. The question is, to which degree.
As you may know, I spent the last weekend at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly in Sacramento. The synod assembly is a time for doing business, but then there are also workshops, Bible studies, key notes, and we worship together. And I have to say that this is always a special experience: to be with roughly 500 other people and share this experience of community in Christ. These 500 don’t agree on everything; sometimes, there are quite heated debates over issues, and especially finances – surprise, surprise!
We come from quite different places with different issues and concerns and see certain things quite differently – here in San Francisco, we live in an entirely different world than farmers in the Central Valley, for example. In addition, we see how our Lutheran family is changing, it is becoming much more diverse. In our Sierra Pacific Synod, German and Finnish are the only languages from the Old World still spoken in worship; and instead of Swedish, Norwegian or Estonian, we hear other languages in our congregations these days: Spanish, Tagalog, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Oromo – which is an Eastern African language.
There are experiences that transcend all cultural or linguistic differences – like the experience of immigration and trying to find a home away from home. But then, of course, it’s not always easy to see one’s family change and to get used to what people different from us have to offer.
And yet, as church, we are from different areas and different life circumstances, coming from different cultures speaking different languages, with different political opinions – and we gather as one family of God. Despite all differences, we all are grounded in Jesus Christ and God’s word, baptized with the one baptism into our Lord. This is the most important thing we share. This makes us belong to God and to each other. This makes us family. And, hopefully, this causes us to treat each other as beloved family.
Now, as I said, families are tricky, even if they are not as dysfunctional as the parents and their 30-year-old son in upstate New York. But I hope and pray that the s and the challenges we experience as God’s family lead to growth: growth in Spirit, growth in wisdom and understanding, and, most importantly, growth in love. And, just like a mustard seed, God’s kingdom then grows as well in us and among us and around us.
Who is my brother and sister and mother, Jesus asks. You. You, and me, and all who do the will of God. Thanks be to God for giving us such a family.
Photo by Tim Marschall on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German