Sunday of Week 13 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

Commentary on 2 Kings 4:8-11.14-16a; Romans 6:3-4.8-11; Matthew 10:37-42

“ANYONE WHO PREFERS FATHER OR MOTHER… son or daughter to me is not worthy of me.” Jesus seems to be making an attack on family life, telling us to turn our backs on our own flesh and blood. To many ears these are scandalous words and a hard saying which many would find difficulty in accepting.

No matter what the Gospel may say, for a large number of people their family comes first before everything else. Yet we need to remember that Jesus himself belonged to a people which has as strong a sense of family as any culture anywhere.

Centrality of family
Others might find Jesus’ words disturbing for other reasons. They feel that there is already too much of a breakdown in family life both in the West and in other parts of the world. There are too many people abandoning their responsibilities to their families either as parents or as children.

Now, more than ever, the family needs special nurturing. In these times we find so many living together but not formally married; so many marriages end up in separation or divorce with tragic consequences for all concerned, but for the children most of all; as a consequence, there are so many single parents and abandoned mothers. These problems, in turn, creating serious social problems on a wide scale and have become a major concern of many governments.

What Jesus is saying
However, with a more careful reading, we can see that Jesus is in fact touching on the roots of these very problems. The opening words of today’s Gospel may be understood in two interlocking ways:
a. Jesus is saying that no individual and no group of people can so live their lives as to put their own interests absolutely above those of others. This is the false “saving one’s life” which Jesus speaks of. “My country – right or wrong”, “My race or my religion – right or wrong”, and “My family – right or wrong”.

The wants of any person or any group of people (e.g. a family) cannot be met by trampling on or denying the basic rights and needs of others. If people in my family were to act in such a way, I would, in conscience, have to separate myself from such behaviour. And I would do this precisely because I love my family. I simply cannot join them in behaviour which I know to be unjust and evil and self-centred. I could not condone immoral practices, e.g. becoming rich by fraud or criminal practices, on the part of one or both parents.

How does the family view society?
We speak of the family as the nucleus of any society and rightly so. But the family cannot be an end in itself, as seems to happen not infrequently. Many families seem to see society as there to provide them with whatever they want to have.

In our day, we like to distinguish between “political refugees” and “economic migrants”. Some flee their countries because they are likely to suffer harassment and persecution. Others flee from poverty to a place where they hope to find some economic security. We can sympathise with all of these.

Whatever the reason, there is something wrong when there is no loyalty, no commitment whatever, no sense of making any contribution to the well-being of the society where they live, be it their birthplace or some place ‘overseas’. Jesus’ words are very relevant in such a situation.

A larger sense of family
b. The second meaning of Jesus’ words follow logically from this. In the view of Jesus, and it is a theme running right through the New Testament, who identify with him, who become his followers, belong to a new family. It is a family where every single person, including family members, relatives, friends as well as complete strangers but, most especially, those in need are truly my brother or sister.

It does not at all mean that we love our family members less and, in fact, of our closeness to them we have special responsibilities towards them. But we now see those related to us by blood as part of a larger family to whom we also have responsibilities.

Jesus wished to spell the end of the divisions that bedevil the relations between human beings: divisions according to race, culture, nationality, religion, class, employment and so on. Various forms of tribalism (you only have to go to a big football match to find it!) still flourish everywhere and family life is not an exception.

The view of Jesus means that there will be times when I will have to give more love, more compassion, more material help to strangers who are in greater need than members of my own family. The hungry, the thirsty, the sick, those in prison, the social outcasts, the unemployed or unemployable, the handicapped, the lonely and unloved… “As often as you do it to the least of my brothers, you do it to ME.” And it is the very same ME, brothers and sisters in need, when Jesus says, “Anyone who prefers father, mother, brother, sister, son or daughter more than ME is not worthy of ME.”

Hospitality to the stranger
This is spelt out in the rest of today’s Gospel and in the First Reading. Hospitality, welcoming the stranger into one’s house, follows on what has been said. It is given a high priority in the New Testament and is a tradition which lives on in many parts of the Church today. The basis of all hospitality is that we all belong to one family and that every person is a brother or sister in a very real (and not just a ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ sense). It can, in the words of the Gospel, be something as simple as offering a cup of cold water. Unfortunately, in our affluent urban societies, the protection of our material goods now usually takes priority over welcoming the stranger. The open door has been replaced by iron bars, alarms and surveillance cameras. It is again a sign of the serious distortion of our values and a breakdown in human relationships.

We need to realise to what extent materialism and consumerism are dominating our lives and turning our families and homes into isolated fortresses. We live in a society which is based on competition, power, influence and success. We are urged to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and to make it on our own, even at the expense of others.

There is only so much of the cake available. We are encouraged to fight for the biggest slice possible for ourselves and our own families. Just too bad if others don’t get enough. Obviously, they did not try hard enough.

In decency, of course, some crumbs will be allowed to fall from our tables for those who are too dumb “to make it” (cf. Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus). Helping the poor often means dropping a few coins in a plate or basket but it is not allowed to impinge on our enjoyment of what is not really necessary in our lives. For instance, would we be ready to give up a holiday abroad and take a cheaper one at home in order to support victims of hunger, disease or homelessness?

More than enough
What Jesus in substance is saying is that when we all work hard to ensure that everyone has enough, there will be more than enough for all. Jesus’ concern, then, is that others have all they need and my concern is that I have all that I need (not just what I want). The bottom line for all of us is: Am I living my life at the expense of others? Do I treat society as a place which owes me – and no one else – a living? Or am I trying to live somehow in solidarity with others? Am I aware of neighbours or people in my area who are in real need? Am I more concerned about the value of my house than that the handicapped be given a sense of belonging in society? Am I more concerned about my social status than be seen in the company of AIDS victims? What does ‘family’ mean to me? Do I see the human family as being part of my family?

As we prepare soon to share the Body of Christ, which is an expression of our belonging to the family of all God’s children, we will say together the ‘Our Father’. The ‘Our’ refers not just to us gathered here, still less our own family members, or the people of our own race, but every single human being. Because we all have one, common Father, we are all very really brothers and sisters to each other.

Far from speaking against the family, Jesus is telling us that we can only be really part of our own families when we realise that we belong to and are called to share what we have and are with the human family all over the world.

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