We begin in the 2nd Book of Kings with Elisha travelling to Shunem. An important woman intercepted him and asked him to stop and share a meal. He agreed, and maintained this custom whenever travelled this route. The woman noticed this pattern and suggested to her husband that this must be a holy man and suggested that they build a room for him on their house. On one of these stops Elisha asked one of their servants: “What can be done for her?” The servant informed him that this woman had no son and her husband was old. Elisha then called for her and promised her that within a year she would hold a son in her arms. Continuing this family theme, Jesus (in Matthew’s Gospel) warns his followers that anyone who choses a parent or child over him, and whoever does not take up his cross, is not worthy. But anyone who welcomes Jesus also welcomes “the one who sent me.” And finally, if “anyone gives so much as a cup of cold water to one of these litte ones because he is a disciple, then I tell you solemnly he will most certainly not lose his reward.”
Every year, the Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, and I have to confess I dread it. It seems that year after year we’re told how we should all be like the Holy Family (an unmarried couple with a small child fleeing persecution). This idyllic view of the “perfect family” does little more than make many of us feel guilty when we recognize that our immediate family does compare well with our view of an idyllic family.
I write this to explain how I struggled to connect these two readings. In the first, the Old Testament prophet Elisha promises a “woman of rank” that she will bear a child. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells this closest friends that they need to choose loyalty to him over loyalty to their closest relatives.
We should probably begin with the concept of hospitality. Viewers of the American television show The Big Bang Theory are familiar with Sheldon’s statement that when they have a visitor “it’s customary to offer a hot beverage.” But in the time of the first reading, hospitality wasn’t just about politeness or social contracts. They lived in a hostile environment where travellers depended on being welcomed into the homes of others, even others they didn’t know, even others they didn’t like.
Elisha stumbled upon “a woman of rank” who not only offered him hospitality, she “pressed him to stay and eat there.” They developed enough of a relationship that whenever he travelled in the area he would stop there, even if he had to go out of his way, and they eventually built him a bedroom. I think most of us would have assumed that this benefactor had everything going for her and lacked for nothing. But Elisha pressed and learned that she did suffer: she and her husband were infertile and lacked children.
And let me say this: Conceiving a child has proven to be a difficult task in our history. For reasons we don’t understand (or for no reason at all) some couples simply cannot conceive a child. In ancient times it was assumed that infertile couples were cursed by God for some sin or their infertility showed that they were not worthy to be parents. We don’t believe this anymore, but every every couple I know who struggles to have children have asked the question: “What is wrong with us?” I don’t want anyone to read this passage from Kings to think that if they were faithful enough, or good enough or whatever, they would be found worthy to have a child.
That said, I think this passage gives us an insight on what it means to be family. This woman of rank and her elderly husband felt incomplete, and her faith in God (and Elisha) allowed them to feel complete.
And now let us travel to Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus told the Twelve something that must have shocked them (and us): Your primary loyalty is not to your family. Your parents and siblings constitute the first community you understood as yours. This is where you first belonged and understood that you belonged. It’s often said home is place “when you need to go there, they have to take you.”
But sometimes these home can be toxic. In the 1960s Charles Manson told his followers that they were all part of a family, and therefore needed to commit murder together. And those of us who remember Jonestown and other cults recognize the danger in being told that you need to leave the family that raised you to join him and be saved.
But, going back to my concern with the feast of the Holy Family, sometimes our families don’t serve us well. I hate the term “dysfunctional family” because all relationships are dysfunctional. We all have patterns of behavior with our parents, siblings, children, and friends, and some of those patters don’t serve us well. A few weeks ago I spoke of the Holy Trinity and I can safely say that the bond between Father, Son, and Spirit gives us the only truly functional relationship in our history.
That said, we all know times in our lives when we need to reach beyond our closest relationships to find our healthiest relationships. When Jesus instructs the Twelve to prefer him over their parents he isn’t calling him to hate their parents. But he is telling them that sometimes you will be called by a family member to say or do something that violates your values.
But there are countless other stories of people who were compelled by family members to violate their values or to do horrible things out of loyalty to their families.
Anyone who has seen the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon about St. Francis (1182-1226) can relate. Francis was born to a wealthy family and they had plans for him. But as a young man he called his father to the public square, and stripped off all his clothes, and renounced all the riches his father promised to give him. All the Franciscan orders we now recognize benefit from his decision on that day in that place.
Most of us won’t face the decision that Francis experienced and most of us follow the moral compass given us by our families. And that’s good. Parents will tell us that they find their greatest joy in raising children who will grow up to make decisions that follow the teachings we find in today’s Gospel.
But, alas, some won’t. Sometimes family members play that relationship to insist we go down the wrong path. Many years ago I met a young woman who was in prison for shoplifting. She explained that her parents taught her and her siblings how to case a store and cause a diversion allowing other members to steal object that they would then sell. She was in jail because a police officer caught her and she punched the officer in the face. She was now in a place where she could reexamine her values and recognize that her family, though they said otherwise, weren’t acting in her best interest. She told me that they would point to wealthy people and tell her it wasn’t fair that they had so much. They would also tell here that the store was so big they’d never even notice what she took.
I think about her when I read this Gospel. I don’t think she was called to hate her family but I hope she was able to take the first few steps in a different direction. I hope she was able to find a new group, a new family, that reflected values of honesty and obeying the law.
I hope so.