Jesus: Pro-Family, Anti-Family, or Both?

(Via Mark Goodacre) Religious Intelligence calls attention to Deirdre Good’s new book about Jesus’ supposed hostility to traditional family values.

“Explaining her controversial argument, Dr Good observed that ‘the word family doesn’t occur in the New Testament’. She added: ‘There’s nothing about family life. Nothing about the qualities of family life. It is amazing how we’ve read qualities in to the Bible.’ Dr Good posits that our Victorian understanding of family values has skewed our reading of the Bible, and that closer reading of scripture reveals ‘shocking’ truths. The front cover of her book bares Matthew 10: ‘Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.'”…

Good’s argument is only half the picture. It’s true that Jesus’ closest followers had to hate their families and abandon them for him. This is a staple feature of millenarian movements, where in breaking away from tradition and custom, they replace biological kin with fictive kin in order to unite people on an exclusive basis to the sect.

But this doesn’t mean Jesus was hostile in every way to the family values of his own culture. The passages in which he confronts adversaries over handwashing (Mk.7:1-13/Mt. 15:1-9) and divorce (Mk. 10:2-12/Mt. 19:3-9) are two examples indicating otherwise. In the former, Jesus attacks Corban — the vow by which a person pledged personal wealth to God upon death, while retaining some use of it during life — a practice which often interfered with a son’s providing for his parents. In citing the fifth commandment (Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16) which held children honor-bound to assist their parents, Jesus showed himself to be very concerned with traditional family values.

In the other case, Jesus attacks divorce in order yet again to safeguard family values. As I explained at some length, the idea that Jesus condemned divorce out of feminist or egalitarian concerns is a fantasy (it would be nice if that were true, but it isn’t). Jesus did what he could to protect families and family honor, even while accepting the inevitability of certain families being torn assunder in the tribulation period and for the sake of his movement.

As always, the Jesus-tradition is complex and cannot be pressed easily into the service of modern agendas. Good’s agenda is perhaps rather transparent:

“[Dr. Good] called for Christians to challenge the traditional idea of the nuclear family and move towards a broader more inclusive understanding… Her argument came on the day when the University and College Union of lecturers claimed the teaching of marriage in schools as anti-gay. The British-born professor was reluctant to call for changes to the Church’s policy on controversial family issues, but concluded: ‘I would like the Church to be prophetic regarding the future, not lagging behind social and legal progress.'”

I can be as anti-nuclear family as much as Good. But frankly, I don’t think Jesus would have much use for my liberal social ideas.

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