Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Love Has No Priorities

Boiling down Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 10:24-39) to one or two problematic verses not only makes for a bad sermon but also a bad reading of the text. The "man against his father and a daughter against her mother" part of the story is Jesus' way of saying that following him--that proclaiming from the rooftops what Jesus has told his disciples in secret--is going to cause some strain in the relationships we hold most dear. Jesus isn't interested in making the Christian community into a Jerry Springer episode. Jesus knows that the message of God's kingdom will split families in two. So to say that the bit about "whoever loves father or mother more than me...whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me" is Jesus' way of saying that you must give up all familial relationships in order to be a disciple isn't really the point. That's one reading of this text, and it's one that sends us out into the desert to be an anchorite and spend the rest of our lives in solitude, but it isn't how I hear this passage.

What does it mean to "love father or mother more than [Jesus]?" What does it mean to love anyone more than anyone else? Let's think about love. What is love? When we're reading about Jesus and get to a passage about love, it's easy to think that we're talking about agape love--the kind of selfless, self-giving, sacrificial love that God has for the world, that Jesus has for his disciples, and that we are called to have for one another. Surely that kind of love is not a comparative thing. Just as something cannot be "more unique" or "more original" or "more orange," there is no such thing as "more agape." Either you love someone in that completely self-emptying sort of way or you don't. Just as you can't sort of be married, you can't sort of have agape. It's all or nothing. But that isn't the kind of love Jesus is talking about here.

Jesus uses the word φιλῶν, which is a verb form of the love known as phileo. Now, that word does mean "love," but it isn't the same verb that conveys agape love. This is brotherly love, love of affection, love of friendship. It's not the romantic eros love, nor is it the sympathetic pathos love. It is relational. It is mutual. But it is not limitless, unconditional, sacrificial love. So when Jesus asks us to love him more than we love our mother or father, he's not telling us to stop loving our children with the kind of approximate unconditional love that burns in our hearts. He's telling us to be closer to him than to the people in our family. That's starting to make sense, but there's more.

The word Jesus uses to make that comparison is the common Greek preposition ὑπέρ. In Greek, it most commonly means "over," which is a little different than the word most often used in the translation of this particular verse--"more." It can also mean "beyond" or ""in place of" or "on behalf of." To render this word in English, the best words we can use are "more" or "over," but we should also hang on to some of the other connotations. This doesn't mean "more" in the sense of "bigger" or "containing a larger quantity." This means "more" as in "I've made a choice, and I'm choosing Jesus in my #1 speed-dial spot over you, Mommy."

By the time we pull it all together, this sounds a little different than we may have first heard it. "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Jesus isn't telling his disciples to love him to the exclusion of their families. And is isn't asking them to love him with a greater love than mother or father or son or daughter. He's telling them that they cannot afford to love family members to the exclusion of him. As followers of Jesus, our affiliation with our family members cannot take the place of our affiliation with Jesus. As his disciples, our connection with our parents or children cannot squeeze out our connection with Jesus. Perhaps ironically, the particularly loose translation The Message may convey this better than almost any other English translation: "If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me."

That helps remind us that the "love" Jesus is talking about here is the relational love that forms between friends or family members. That kind of "relationship affection" has priorities. I'm allowed (and expected) to have a closer connection with my son than with my second cousin. The challenging teaching here is that I'm supposed to have a closer connection with Jesus than I am with my parents or my children. That isn't easy. But I'm not called to agape-love them less than I agape-love Jesus. That kind of love doesn't have degrees.

Luke's version of this passage, in which Jesus tells his disciples to hate their mothers, fathers, and children? Well, that's another post and another sermon for another year.

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