The Gospel selection for today can be very unsettling. It seems as if Jesus is predicting that people of faith will inevitably run into opposition from the members of their families. Rather than looking at it as a prediction of things to come, it is far more profitable to remember that the Gospels were written long after Jesus’ return to heaven. Much of what the Gospel seems to predict, such as the destruction of the Temple and the bitter fighting in family groups, had already happened to the Christian community. The Gospels are simply reporting the reality. By putting the words into the mouth of Jesus, the evangelists are actually comforting the Christian community.
Family structures in the Middle East were and are much more complex than they are in the Western World. Our culture tends to champion the rights of the individual. Our language is filled with all sorts of way to let people know that they should not be interfering in our lives. The Middle Eastern culture, however, does not champion the rights of the individual. It is the group that gets priority. Everyone is expected to subjugate their needs to the needs of the group. Family life was structured in such a way that the patriarch of the group held sway and governed the lives of each member of the family.
Becoming a Christian was, therefore, a difficult choice to make simply because it automatically set one at odds with the rest of the household. At the same time, the opposite was also true. For instance, if you read the conversion stories that populate the Acts of the Apostles, you may notice that when the head of a household converts to Christianity, such as Cornelius the Centurion, his entire household also converts. The entire group deferred to the decision made by the patriarch. If an individual member other than the patriarch became Christian, he was usually ostracized from the group. While this would be troubling in our own society, it would be catastrophic in Middle Eastern Society. When someone was ostracized from his family, he lost his history, his present reality as well as his future.
The message is clear. A decision to follow Jesus comes with a cost - the cost of discipleship. While the costs for people of the twenty-first century may be different than for the disciples of the first century, there is a cost nonetheless. We will always find ourselves at odds with much of our society’s customs and values. The decision to follow Jesus takes courage and strength, two gifts that are ours through the Holy Spirit.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator