Historical Cultural Context

The Bonds of Family

Family (kinship) is the central social institution in the ancient Mediterranean world, just as economics are in our world. Jesus' requirement that his followers should love him more than they love mother, father, son, or daughter shocks his first-century listeners. Here is some background to help a modern American appreciate the shock.

The ancient Middle Eastern family was very large and quite extended. It consisted of a father and all his children, including his married sons with their entire families, living in one place. The ideal marriage partner was a first cousin (one's father's brother's daughter), which bound this close-knit family together with even tighter bonds. The resultant mentality was "our family" against "everyone else."

To marry anyone other than a family member was unthinkable. To sever all family ties as did the “prodigal son” (Luke 15:11-32) was not only stupid but equivalent to suicide. Outside the family, no one can be trusted, no one will help you, as that renegade son quickly learned when his funds ran out.

The real consequences of leaving one's family are dire indeed. One not only gives up the basic claim to honor and status but also loses all of the family's economic, religious, educational, and social connections as well. Perhaps most disastrous of all consequences is loss of a connection to the land. These are all serious and life-threatening losses. They are what Jesus had in mind when he spoke of  “taking up one's cross” and “losing one's life for my sake.”

The Christian's Consolations

These exhortations are important because they offer at least two consolations. One consolation is for the consequences of leaving one's family of origin and transferring allegiance to the surrogate family now composed of nonrelated believers in Jesus. The other consolation is for the hardships encountered by followers of Jesus from Jewish competitors in their missionary work.

Americans may find these ideas just a little strange. Amencan youngsters are socialized from an early age toward leaving the family of origin and setting up their own family, sometimes in a different city or state. The troubles that a Mediterranean person experienced in leaving the family of origin have little resonance with modern believers.

Further, hospitality among Americans is reserved for family and other special people. A study of parishes in the United States discovered that generally speaking they were not very hospitable to newcomers and visitors.

Today's Gospel challenges modern Western believers to reflect on two key ideas. What is the “real cost” of maintaining one's faith in Jesus? And how do Western believers relate to other believers, particularly those who appear unexpectedly in their midst, or those who are in special need?

John J. Pilch

John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible

 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson