The Parent/Disciple Challenge

About three months ago, I arrived a bit late to a Monday night meeting of the Presbyterian women. As I walked into the library, some of the women were discussing the subject of discipleship – what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.  While I didn’t catch the whole discussion, I did hear someone say that the real key to being a disciple of Jesus is to try to live your life like Jesus lived his.

This comment really stuck with me.  It is at once such a simple concept, and also reveals a profound truth that I have found in Christianity – the power of having a real life to turn to, to inspire me to be a better person every day.

So the next day, reinvigorated after the meeting (well, maybe more truthfully after my third cup of coffee) I decided to try to put this idea into practice. But I quickly ran into a rather significant stumbling block:

Jesus never had kids.

  • Jesus never got woken up in the middle of the night by a four year old asking to be tucked in for the 25th time
  • Jesus never had to figure out how to simultaneously be at choir practice, a Little League game, a conference call and a PTA meeting
  • Jesus didn’t have to worry about the daily routine of getting three children dressed and delivered on-time to schools, getting to work, coming home in time to relieve the nanny, putting the kids to bed and caring for the pet rat we have somehow inexplicably acquired.

So while I started my day all fired up to show love to all around me and give selflessly to those in need, by 5 o’clock I had fallen back into being snarly and self-centered.  Perhaps I just needed more coffee.

This story reveals why such a simple concept – trying to live like Jesus and “obey his commandments” is so tremendously difficult in practice. How can I try to live like Jesus when his life was so different from my own?  Let’s review some key aspects of Jesus’ life:

  • No kids
  • No spouse
  • No pets
  • Nor regular office hours or commute
  • Didn’t even have a lawn to mow or a pantry that needed to be repainted.

No wonder he had time to help so many!

In trying to figure out this all out, I thought I’d look through some of his teachings to see if that shed any light on the subject.  In the process, I came across some statements that reveal a rather surprising attitude towards family and household obligations:

  • There is of course the famous story of Mary and Martha from Luke (10:38-42), where Martha rushes around preparing a meal and bed for Jesus while Mary sits and listens to Jesus’ teachings.  When Martha calls on Jesus to get Mary to help her with the chores, he replies that Mary “has chosen the better part”.
  • Then there’s Matthew 12:48-50:  Jesus is ‘speaking to the crowds’ when he is told that his mother and brothers are outside and want to talk to him.  Jesus responds by asking “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” and then, pointing to his disciples says, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
  • Perhaps most provocative, earlier in Matthew (10:35 – 38) Jesus states “For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worth of me”.

Wow – so to follow Jesus – does this mean that I should just ignore my obligations to home and family?  Hmm, that sounds kind of tempting at times. Do any of you mind taking care of my kids for the next week so I can go follow Jesus, love God and heal the afflicted?

Yeah, I thought not. So what do I do? How can I follow His path?

For me, the beginning of the answer has come from looking at Jesus’ historical and cultural context.  Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz provide some of this context in their book The Historical Jesus.  They speak of how the Jewish community of which Jesus was a part developed “ritual symbolic language” such as ‘circumcision, food laws, and regulations about purity” that “penetrated the whole of life”.  These aspects of Jewish life “had the function of protecting monotheism: faith in the one and only God was (in Jesus’ time) a deviant conviction in a polytheistic world.  This…minority could preserve and hand down its conviction only if marriage between Jews and non-Jews did not bring the worship of other gods into families…”.

While today we take monotheism for granted, that was not the case in the first century, Roman-occupied Palestine of Jesus’ time.  Jews were under constant threat from polytheism – threats they’d experienced from their earliest history.  A key strategy to survive these pressures lay in maintaining the integrity of the Jewish family – by embracing traditions that set Jews apart through a distinctive set of practices, and also simply by placing tremendous emphasis and value on the role of the family in passing down beliefs from parent to child.

In fact, this concept of passing on one’s beliefs to one’s children is part of the Shema– the prayer all Jews are taught to say twice a day and which Jesus knew well (Deuteronomy 6).  In Hebrew, it reads:

V’ahav’ta eit Adonai Elohekha b’khol l’vav’kha uv’khol naf’sh’kha uv’khol m’odekha.

V’hayu had’varim ha’eileh asher anokhi m’tzav’kha hayom al l’vavekha.
V’shinan’tam l’vanekha v’dibar’ta bam b’shiv’t’kha b’veitekha uv’lekh’t’kha vaderekh uv’shakh’b’kha uv’kumekha

In English:

“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.  And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit at home, and when you walk along the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.”

Marcus Borg, in his book Meeting Jesus again for the first time, further fleshes out the critical role of the family in Jesus’ time: “In (Jesus’) culture, the family was the primary social unit, the center of both identity and material security, and a “good” family was one of the blessings of God”

So in summary, in Jesus’ day (and well before and after his day) Jews had in essence ‘circled the wagons’ in order to survive.  They had become insular – focused on protecting their faith and their tribe – but in so doing Jesus believed that they had lost track of what God really wanted them to do –simply to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  And to “love your neighbor as yourself”.  In Mark 12 Jesus states that there are no commandments more important than these. These are the commandments that Jesus wished his disciples to teach to ‘all the nations’, and which we need to embrace to become ‘disciples of Christ’ ourselves.

If you will forgive me a simple paraphrase of these ideas in the context of how to balance being a parent and a ‘disciple of Jesus’, I would put it into two basic ideas:

  1. Keeping your family obligations in perspective
  2. Embracing universalism

This ‘keeping it in perspective’ concept is crucial.  I am sure I am not the only one who has at times been so wrapped up with the challenges and concerns of my own household that I am unable to think of anyone else’s problems.  Or, even if things are going well, how often have I become focused on pushing my child to succeed in an area where I have unrequited ambitions. Caring for our children is a part of who we are, but becoming enslaved to our childrens’ every need or lavishing every opportunity on our children quickly reveals itself for the selfish pride that it is really is.  If we really are to internalize Jesus’ commandment to put love of God before all else, then I believe many of us can experience a profound sense of release from the crushing weight of trying to be the perfect parent that today’s society and incessant parenting guide books try to foist upon us.

Secondly, and closely related, is this idea of universalism in Jesus’ teachings about family.  Again – instead of becoming fixated on the health and wealth of one’s immediate family, he counsels that the way to God lies in embracing all people as one’s own brother, parent or child.  His parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to who is your neighbor is a further example of Jesus preaching universalism over tribalism, openness versus the narrowness of focusing just on one’s immediate family, neighborhood or religious community.

Crucial again to both of these points is something Marcus Borg explains in his writings about Jesus as a teacher of “alternative wisdom” – as opposed to the conventional wisdom of his day and, I would argue, our own.  He writes “..as a wisdom teacher Jesus…invites his hearers to see in a radically new way.  The appeal is to the imagination, to that place within us in which reside our images of  reality and our images of life itself;…….The appeal is not to the will – not “Do this” but rather, Consider seeing it this way”.

So to honor this intent of Jesus, I will not end by explicitly telling you what you all should do to be both a good parent AND a good disciple of Jesus.  However, since we live in a society that values action (and Jesus himself placed priority on actions as well as thoughts) I will share with you some of the ways that I have internalized these messages, and how it has changed the way I behave:

  1. First of all, in the course of my day, I continuously try to push my preoccupation with my own life and concerns to a corner of my brain so that I have space to focus on the needs of others. I can’t by any means claim that I’m successful in this regard (my brain doesn’t have many empty corners left) but I have found on occasion that I am able to reach out to a friend or acquaintance whom I might not have even noticed in the past due to my own worries
  2. Secondly, I try to look out for opportunities to care for all children.  It can be small – like helping a kid who is fussing when the parent is already occupied with another child.  Or it can be bigger, like making a commitment to support a non-profit that helps orphans in a country far removed from my own.
  3. Finally, I try to remember that I am the role model for my children.  So just by being kind to the person at the checkout counter at the supermarket, or by having the kids help when I cook for the Hope Soup kitchen, I hope that someday my children will try to follow.

I won’t lie to you – I continuously fail in all these areas, every day.  But that is when I remember the last line of this week’s Gospel reading: “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  I sure hope so, because to follow you I’m going to need all the help I can get….

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