Let the Scriptures Speak
The Open Family
He said to them, “Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
As I was driving to Des Moines, Iowa, to give a workshop, the voice on NPR let me know that I was heading for what was, at that moment, the most famous town on earth—the place where Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey had just become the parents of seven children. The four boys and three girls, though in delicate condition because of their prematurity, were all well formed and their prospects good. The public response was vigorous and various. Some imagined the scenario of 35,000 diaper changes before toilet training took effect. Others focused on clinical dimensions: “For the average consumer it will obscure the downside [of multiple pregnancy],” observed one physician. What came through loud and clear was Bobbi's pro-life choice when the plurality of her pregnancy had been discovered. Presented with the option to “reduce the number of fetuses” in order to avoid the real risk of losing all, she chose to gamble on God. Led by her faith that all life is a gift from God, she chose to carry all seven to term.
In one sense, this sevenfold wonder simply dramatized what is a fact of normal life: any family, even a single mother with one child, participates in a mystery involving them intimately with the Creator and imposes more responsibilities than any of us can fully comprehend and adequately carry out alone.
Luke, in the seventh scene of his introduction to the public life of Jesus, presents an abundant reminder of these dimensions of family and parenting. The account of Jesus lost and found in the Temple is as much a story of the parents as of the child. Mary and Joseph are returning from Jerusalem, having completed the annual pilgrimage to the Holy City for the celebration of Passover. Assuming that twelve-year-old Jesus is safe somewhere in the caravan of relatives and friends (no smothering over-protectiveness here), they are surprised, after a day's journey, to discover that the child is not among them.
Finally, after three days of searching for him “with great anxiety,” Jesus confronts them with a statement that would carry little consolation for any parent: “Why did you search for me? Did you not know I had to be en tois tou patros mou?” I quote those last words in Luke's Greek because it is one of those places where the Third Evangelist seems deliberately to be using ambiguous language. A literal rendering would be “in the [things] of my Father,” which commentators have mainly taken to mean “about the affairs of my father” (referring to action) or “in the house of my father” (referring to a place). The mysterious openness of the phrase leaves one thing crystal clear, Jesus' life involves an obedience to more than earthly parents. Mary has just referred to Joseph as Jesus' father, but Jesus uses the word pater of the Creator. Yet, Luke hastens to show that doing the will of his heavenly Father entailed obedience to Mary and Joseph: “He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”
As exceptional as these things may be—the birth of septuplets and the unique family relationships of Jesus—both the Des Moines story and the Lucan episode remind us that being family is an intimate involvement with the divine—more challenging than we expect, more promising than we could hope for. And we always need outside help
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University