Clambering through the family tree
For a wider reading of the text this week, I recommend my post from last Lectionary cycle: Setting our Face Towards Paradox.
Closer to home this cycle, you can listen here, or read on below the text from Luke 9:51-62
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’[as Elijah did.] 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then [Other ancient authorities read rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what spirit you are of, 56for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.’ Then] they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But he said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
For the cousins who enrich my life...
My great-grandfather was sent back to England to train as a Methodist minister, although he never completed those studies. "Rarely settled for long," he must have been one of the richer men in Victoria, for a time: He bought a city mansion for his daughter's wedding because it had a suitably large ballroom. But before that, when great-grandma Seenie died, my grandfather was sent 'home' to South Australia, because his step-mother "did not want anything to do with him." Dad said that "he in many ways felt that his father had deserted him." As a small child, I knew nothing of that story, but it was obvious that Grandpop, although kind and generous, was full of pain, even though I couldn't quite articulate that.
Ten or fifteen years after Grandpop's death, as Wendy and I prepared to return to the north, I had told my parents of my plan to candidate as a minister. Dad wandered outside as I checked something on our truck just before we left, and said, "I want you to know that you've got our support. We'll do whatever we can to help you."
Family makes us and breaks us. It can be demonic. After a police officer in Melbourne was attacked by young two brothers, their father threatened violence against the police: "I got zero respect and you know why. F*** the police and your crew ya swine. You attack mine, god help yours." Family links with family to form tribes, and small nations, and soon we have people saying, 'Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?' That father is just an average looking sort of bloke; you might sit next to him on the train and not be uncomfortable. What drives him?
It is my Mother's 90th birthday this week, and we will gather with her for nibbles and champagne on Saturday afternoon. She won't know who her grandchildren are, and it's likely she won't remember me. But she will be as gracious, and looking to 'make the best of it' with her guests, as she has always been. She will likely make some insightful and clever witticism which completely transcends the loss of her memory, and reflects the love of word play she and I inherit from her father. Family makes us and breaks us. Grandma and grandpa meant the world to me, yet something of their determination to always do what is right and proper, always smoulders in me, and threatens those who are not family, with fire.
Hospitality and family are a sacred obligation. In-hospitality, and desertion of family, are not neutral things. They are a kind of hostility, a rejection of a person's humanity. They are like that village which "did not receive him." They invite retaliation. And the cost is real: the one without family is indeed likely to end up with "nowhere to lay their head." Nurses ring this house in the middle of the night, and ask the chaplain to come sit with someone who is dying all alone; without family there is no one even to bury us.
How do we live in this tension? How do we live when it seems Jesus calls us to leave family? Is he asking us to abandon them? And what responsibility do we have to them— after all, family is often the home of a generations-long abuse. (cf Jer 31:29)
Firstly, an Old Testament story that this week's gospel brings to mind, concerns Elijah's call to Elisha to follow him. Elisha says,
“Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Then Elijah said to him, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” 21He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.
It's not clear if Elijah's response to Elisha is criticism or understanding of his situation. But I have seen something similar to Elisha's actions. When he was due to leave Ernabella and go 'a world away' from his family and teenage children for many months of ministry training, my 'father' Kunmanara went hunting. In a day or two he had brought back 17 kangaroos for the town. The message was clear: look after my family. (It is also clear that he was a superb hunter!) In the system of obligations and family interlinking, neither Elisha nor Kunmanara were abandoning their family. They ensured their support. Elisha gave up his livelihood in dramatic fashion, and had nothing to go back to!
My second thought about all this comes from a conversation last night. We were wondering what had led me away from the fire-throwing intolerance of some of my background. What has prevented me from being consumed by it? And that's the point of the reading this week: if we will not follow Jesus without the old way of being family and nation, the way of violence, we will ourselves be consumed by it. It will be all that we have.
Oddly enough, my getting away from being an intolerant p*** seems to be that I left my family behind. In "setting my face to Jerusalem," which for me was the call to ministry, I was exposed to "a whole world of difference" outside the insularity of my family home and town. I had to learn a new way to be, because the way of my home town and family was not enough to make sense of my new world. In the new parents and family assigned to me by the folk at Ernabella, I was confronted by a different way of being a person and a Christian which was, despite its difference, obviously genuine. I found other "different but genuine" ways of living amongst the European staff in town at that time, for they had come from all over the world. Suddenly, my world was a wider place, and being Christian and being human, was a much richer thing than I had imagined.
Kathryn Getek Soltis says
The relations of father and mother, daughter and son, are not made irrelevant by our faith. The very fact that we speak of God as Father or as a Mother Hen shows that family relations often give the very basis for understanding the relationships of a disciple. We seek to regard all men and women as brothers and sisters, as children of God, not because family is usurped by discipleship but because it is often disclosed through it. There will still be real and vexing tensions but it seems the path of true discipleship will always be asking us to love family in a way that continues to expand and deepen the meaning of the very concept.
In my first notes for this post I scribbled down, "You will not properly see your family until you have seen the Christ...." which is a way of saying that discipleship of Jesus heals us. Here is where I am heading with this:
When Jesus says "No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God," it's not a harsh direction to abandon family. In its context it's using a pithy saying to make a point about being focussed and serious about something: In a contemporary piece of literature,
Hesiod’s Works and Days, a plowman is described as one “who attends to his work and drives a straight furrow and no longer gapes after his comrades, but keeps his mind on his work.”9 In other words, to look back from the plow (whether to family living or dead) was to risk cutting a crooked or shallow furrow and thus ruining the work altogether! There is no place for looking back or even trying to look in two directions at once (being “two-faced”); rather, would-be disciples must be single-minded in purpose, setting their faces like Jesus on the task at hand.
But, equally, we would say in our time, that not to look back, not to see where we have been, and from where we have come, is a shallow way of living. It's when I look back that I see the 'unsettled bug" that great-grand father gave us. We are a family of nomads: stock and station agents, soldiers and airmen, teachers, and clergy. It's our loneliness and our glory. In my part of the family, grandpop up and left the farm at the height of his life. Dad told me Jerry Cooke had said "he'll be back in three months." But somehow, in the moving and all the crisis, he found a way of being. Dad went to the War and, as one of my sisters said, "knew someone in every town in Australia" as a result. I'm living in my 24th place since leaving home, but have begun to find myself even though, in another way, nowhere is home anymore. Leaving family is our healing, but we can't leave. We are the us of our family, and which our family gave us. We can only grow into a larger sort of family where we find perspective and healing.
The other night on the bike track as two blokes loomed toward me out of the gloom, one yelled, "Andrew??" and slammed to a halt. As I wrote later to his mum,
Cyclists in the half dark are like: I've never met you before, but I recognise the bike from your website.
Cousins in the half dark are like: I've never met you before, but crikey, you look like your mum and dad!
There was a delight and joy in meeting each other at last, for family complete us and make us whole. The man who threatens insane violence on behalf of his sons— I mean, threaten a VicPol cop on Facebook!???— does so because his family completes him, too. The problem is that when our immediate family is all we have, we cannot abide any threat to them. It drives us fire-throwing crazy even when we know we are being stupid, for such a narrow family binds us. And there is no escaping them.
But Jesus is about giving us the whole world. He is offering to make the whole world family, which will cost us the smaller world of our birth family, and greatly enrich it, and even free us from it. This is also known as... The Kingdom of God.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 9:51-62 - More Elijah and Jesus (2010)
Luke 9:51-62 - More than Elijah (2010)
Luke 9:51-62 - Setting our face towards paradox (2016)
Luke 9:51-62 - The Spirit of Elijah, or the Spirit of Jesus? (2016)