She died before I was born, but I grew up hearing stories about my father’s mother. Typically, however, those stories came not from my father but from my mother—her daughter-in-law. Apparently, my “Grandma Rubye” was a strong woman who kept the house and the family in order. Married to a surgeon whose career had more than its share of ups and downs, she managed to hold everything together. Like many women of her day, she took care of everything except earning a paycheck. In fact, as a dance instructor, she even did that.
When my mother speaks of her mother-in-law, it is with respectful, almost reverential tones. I don’t think that’s because she was particularly close to my grandmother. Instead, I think it’s because my mother was a little intimidated by her. The stories I hear from my mother are about times when my grandmother showed up late in the evening but still arrived expecting to eat dinner. They are stories about how loving and affirming she was but always in the context of being silently demanding. There was, I can tell, some tension between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, but I think that’s natural. Overall, though, it seemed to have been a relationship full of love and mutual concern.
When Jesus tells about the gospel as a sharp quickening agent (this Sunday's gospel lesson), he uses family relationships to describe how divisive it can be: “father against son / and son against father / mother against daughter / and daughter against mother / mother-in-law against daughter-in law / and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” The father-son thing I get. I have a father. I am a son. And there’s always been some tension between us. It’s supposed to be that way. I don’t have any sisters, but I can tell my wife and her mother have had their moments. Their hostility seems to have been more open than that between my father and me. But the bit about mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law…that really throws me for a loop.
Jesus did not come to earth to bring peace but a sword (Mark’s word). Division, as Luke puts it. In a household of five, three will be versus two. Even close family relationships will be split in half. In other words, the gospel doesn’t lend itself to mediocre reactions. Like modern art—you either love it or hate it. No one hears the gospel in its power and says, “Well, maybe.”
There is no stronger alliance in my family than that between my wife and my mother. Each has seen my failings. Both still love me. They share a (usually) unspoken knowledge of what it’s like to deal with me. Like my mother’s relationship with her mother-in-law, there is a deep sense of connection shared between the two. No, they aren’t best friends, but I’ve never seen them at odds with one another. Imagining that the gospel could turn that relationship on its head is hard for me to do.
Even the relationships that seem most likely to stand the test of time are subject to the division of the gospel. God’s work is powerful. It is not subject to human desires. It does not ask whether you’re ready for it. It shows up and causes strife. Usually, the “gospel” I hear preached in the contemporary church is the gospel of niceness. Jesus wants us to love each other and to be friends. Maybe. But that’s not what Luke 12 says. What sort of gospel should I be preaching? Though it should never be my goal, am I proclaiming God’s word with enough power to tear families apart?