It is inevitable that in a political season the topics of conversation will eventually include "family values." There is probably no more essential image in our common life. And yet, little time is spent on defining the words, "family" or "values." The assumption is that our common life has given us a set of principles that only need to be applied in the present age. There already exists a blueprint, an image, a picture of the good life: the little girl in braids in the dentist's chair; the little boy with a nickel in the candy store; or the winter landscapes of a small New England town -- a Norman Rockwell portrait we idolize.
In such a world, the cover of the old Saturday Evening Post would define family -- middle class, of European descent, set in Vermont (or somewhere very much like it), living in the 1950's. There would be a mom, a dad, one son, one daughter, a dog, a cat -- a family. In such a world, the soft colors of Rockwell's brush strokes define value. The warmth of softly-lit streets; the redness of a child's nose and cheeks; the golden sunlight shining on daily life-these images value a simpler life, well ordered and devoid of pain and suffering. The virtues of prosperity, health, leisure, and comfort are in abundance. Long after the soft, warm covers of the old Saturday Evening Post have been replaced by the crass tabloid photos of the Star and the Inquirer, it is still Norman Rockwell's "family values" that define a great many of our secular assumptions.
Many people today are acknowledging a radical discontinuity between their own family lives and those idolized images of popular culture. The perpetual presence of pain and suffering has pressed them to seek another fount of common "family values." The Judeo-Christian tradition's ability to cut across the boundaries of class, ethnicity, geography, and time have made the Biblical narrative an abundant source of "family values." But today's lessons give ample warning to any who would take the Biblical narratives as literal blueprints of the good life. Is anyone really ready to embrace the abandonment that Jesus' priorities require-or the sacrifice asked of Abraham?
Can you imagine a suicidal teen in family court defending his abandonment of his family by quoting Luke's parallel to today's Gospel. "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple." Do you even want to think about a teen, a knife, a stone floor, and a bound child? This is not fiction. In 1989, a teen acted out these "family values." Literalism is a dangerous principle.
Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning. What is family? Is it middle class, of European descent, living in Vermont in the 1950's -- a mom, a dad, one son, one daughter, a dog, a cat? Or is it a Hebrew woman who surrenders her son to the Nile that he might live as an adopted heir in Pharaoh's court. Adoption is an image of family that popular culture rarely invokes. Almost everyone is close to-or directly involved in an adoptive family -- families that often cross class, ethnicity, geography, and time. There are now, and have always been, families where grandparents are parenting a grandchild; where an aunt in a far away state raises a nephew; where children of color are welcomed into predominately white families (and vice-versa); or where the boundaries of class and income are erased for yet another Broadway Annie or Oliver. It is a fact that families are complicated, non-simple, often painful alignments born out of suffering and sadness that give hope and purpose to both parent and child.
Even families that do not have at their core adoptive relationships know that the simple and predictable family norms do little justice to the complexity of family life. To be in relationship is to be in tension with an other-someone else who makes demands upon our individualistic freedoms. Husbands give themselves to their wives and wives give themselves to their husbands so that the two -- wishing to create a mutual relationship-sacrifice some liberties in order that they might become one, a "one" of greater value. Sacrifice seems too strong a word to describe what most people gladly give up for companionship and purpose. But if one seeks to have it all in a relationship without limits, how quickly are we reminded that to be in relationship is to surrender individualism to the "family."
And lest we fall prey to the idols of popular culture, the single man and woman equally are in families. They, perhaps more than most, know the inadequacy of defining family as " a mom, a dad, one son, one daughter, a dog, a cat." They, too, give themselves in a multitude of relationships. They, too, are inheritors of hope and purpose. They who are most often marginalized by the popular definition of family can remind us all that family is where the heart is-where we give ourselves to the other-where we sacrifice the language of the individual and embrace the language of family.
Is anyone really "not" ready to embrace the sacrifice asked of Abraham?
To be sure the sacrifice asked of Abraham was extreme, but for the Hebrews nothing less than the identity of the family of God was at stake. Although much is made of Abraham's faith, what about his personal surrender of that which for him was his most personal treasure. It is hard today to fully understand that Abraham was surrendering not only his child, but his legacy -- his own identity. Today we jump quickly to Isaac's role and rights, but for Isaac he had no role, rights, or identify separate from his father's. Abraham was willing to give up his only son -- his individual future -- for the future of the family of God.
But to define "family" as the willing sacrifice of the individual will only get one so far. Because each individual is constantly being challenged to sacrifice all-for the important and for the trivial. There must be some way to value the individual as well as value the family. Jesus wishes us life, not death. In Matthew's parallel to Mark's extreme rhetoric in today's Gospel, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worth of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me." Jesus is asking us to prioritize our relationships-to sacrifice for the more valuable, not the less valuable. He is not asking us to blindly throw away our individual life, but rather to live that life within the priorities of God first -- us second. But even such a simple principle becomes clouded in day-to-day life. Where is the simple blueprint to establish God's priorities?
It would be easy to return to a Biblical literalism, except that the risks are so high. Perhaps there is no one simple blueprint. Perhaps it is through the day-to-day experiences of ones life and the lives of others that one might discover what truly has value and what does not. But to see the choices of another's life (or one's own), one must be willing to witness to life's choices, the priorities: when have they failed; when have they prospered. This is so hard to do. It is much easier to paint the stories of "family values" in the soft, pleasing, comfort of a Norman Rockwell painting. It is much more difficult to bear the crosses of our choices and than to abandon the idols we wish to take their place. It is much easier to cloak our values (good and bad) in shame, than to bear our values for the world to see. The day-to-day struggle to prioritize values is not easy. But -- is anyone really "not" ready to embrace the abandonment that Jesus' priorities require -- to put God first-and escape this "sinful generation" and embrace life and glory.
Perhaps today's parallel of Jesus' word might be: "If any one would come after me, let them sacrifice themselves and take up their choices and follow me. For whoever would hide their choices will be lost, and who ever would witness to their choices for my sake and the sake of others will live. For what does it gain to hide behind idols of prosperity, health, leisure and comfort and loose ones life. For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, I will be ashamed of them when I come with the holy angels."
Take up your cross and help this generation define "family value."