I found myself reading Matthew chapter 10 this week. As chapters go it has more than it’s fair share of challenging verses. Jesus sends his disciples out telling them to take no bag for their journey, no money, no extra clothes. He warns them they’ll be hated and chased from city to city. He tells them he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword and that the sharpest divisions would be in families: sons against dads, daughters against mums ‘ a man’s enemies will be those of his own household’ (v35). This is not sounding much like the ‘Waltons’ to me!
So what are we to make of all this? Were these just specific instructions to a specific set of disciples at a specific moment in time? Does any of this apply to us? Divided families hardly seems like a ‘Christian’ aspiration. Yet Jesus said ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter is not worthy of me’. (v.37)
This is a really hard saying. I think he might be saying something about our closest relationships being the ones we are most likely to use as a substitute for a relationship with God. I don’t think he’s saying ‘hate your family’!
I know he’s using hyperbole, saying something in a very exaggerated way in order to provoke strong feelings. And hyperbole is not meant to be taken literally but it’s still a tough saying and I mulled it over for quite some time.
Two thoughts have helped a bit so I offer you these. First I looked up the word for ‘love’ in verse 37 and found out it was ‘phileo’ which is not the higher ‘unconditional love’ sort of love (also known as ‘agape’). Phileo can be defined as ‘to be fond of, care for, affectionately cherish, take pleasure in, have personal attachment for’. Now I am a mum and I am really fond of my kids. I cherish, take pleasure in them and have a lot of personal attachment to them. In fact now that they are not at home, an huge amount of thwarted parental attention gets directed towards the dog! Even so I heard myself the other day describing my kids as ‘the two people I love best in all the world’. Possibly that’s a bit unfair on best beloved husband but as a piece of hyperbole, it’s completely within the normal range of motherly devotion. The helpful thought I had about the word ‘phileo’ was that maybe it wouldn’t be stretching the definition too much to express it as ‘make a fuss over, be preoccupied with, have over-riding concern for’, and I thought yes, sometimes motherly concern can go too far. When my preoccupation with them extends to areas of their lives over which I have no control then I am expending a huge amount of emotional energy for no obvious benefit and all that emotional energy would be far better redirected elsewhere, particularly towards the God who loves them even more than I love them.
My children are currently 7760 (ish) miles apart. One is in America and the other is in India. I don’t suppose it’s geographically accurate to say I’m in the middle but it would be roughly true that I’m probably about 4,000 miles away from either of them. From this distance, what can I control in their lives? Overlooking the fact that I have bank account details for both of them (!): nothing. I can control nothing about their lives. (A fact underlined somewhat dramatically this weekend as Matt was admitted to hospital in India).
So this commandment from Jesus tells me I am not to do the Jewish mother routine: ‘fussing’ over my kids. The more I love God, the better I will understand how much he loves them and how much more capable he is of looking after them anyway so I will be better able to trust them to his care rather than feel I have to be the one looking out for them.
Here’s the second thought. It came to me in picture form some time after I’d read this passage. I very rarely hear from God in pictures but this one came out the blue and seemed to fit this passage perfectly. It’s also very simple to understand. The image that came to me was of the oxygen masks that drop down in front of you if your plane is in trouble. I’ve never experienced this but I have sat through plenty of ‘in flight’ safety videos all of which contain the same phrase relating to the masks, an instruction to parents: ‘Parents: be sure to fit your own mask before assisting your children with theirs’. That phrase has always struck me as counter intuitive. The protective instincts of any mother scream ‘get the kids’ masks on first’ but, of course, the instruction is correct, unless you are deeply inhaling oxygen from your own mask the chances are you might black out long before you have strapped a mask to the face of your wriggling infant.
Ah! (it was a light bulb moment) …maybe that’s what you meant, Jesus? It’s all a question of priority. In my job I seem to spend a lot of time of time helping other people put on their emergency masks but I have to ensure my own divine connection first. Only when I love God more can I love them better.