The Family: celebrating the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the family

Posted On August, 23 - 2018 The Family: celebrating the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the family Image

The Family: celebrating the Judaeo-Christian tradition of the family

The Most Reverend Dr Michael Jackson, archbishop of Dublin and bishop of Glendalough, Church of Ireland


In the Old Testament and the New Testament, as we in the Christian tradition call the witness to God in Scripture before and after the birth of Jesus Christ, we have a sense of families both in transition and in settlement. In each of them, we have a sense of Israel, Old and New, being the definitive family of God. Because of our respect for Holy Scripture, we presume that there will be a good outcome in all things. We are often led forward in this direction by the texts, whether it be the stories of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and his family or Mary, Joseph and Jesus fleeing into Egypt and returning to live in Nazareth. The imagery of patriarchs gives us a sense of someone being in control, someone being in direct touch with God, someone for whom God ‘makes it all happen.’ Because our hearing takes place in church, because it is given the blessing of the church, a good outcome feels secured. However, many of these accounts work in the groove of an almost automatic providential expectation and fulfilment of the hope of God’s capacity to look after God’s people. It was The Lisbon Earthquke of 1755 that asked serious questions of this sort of understanding of providence and what it could deliver in a modern age; and it was the words of a Syrian woman whom I met in St Paul’s Church, Ashrafia, Amman, Jordan: None of my family believed in God before IS came; after we escaped all believed … that brought me back to consider seriously again the inscrutability of the workings of the ways of God. 

We need to recognize the existence of a darker side of family life before we embrace too exuberantly the positive as the only outcome. In Genesis 28, we find Jacob meeting God at Luz/Beth El very soon after he has murdered his brother Esau; in 2 Samuel 13, we meet Tamar, daughter of King David, who has been raped by her half-brother Amnon; in St Luke 15, we meet two sons, one prodigal and one industrious, and their father has eyes only for The Prodigal returned. We also recognize evil Christian families down through history and to this day. Scriptural family life is more complex than the gloss we have all too readily put on it. To any literal reading of the texts we need to add St Augustine’s principle of bene uti malo/making good use of the bad in order to understand the workings of God, however angrily it tests our faith, however reluctant we are to accept the outcomes. Scriptural family is no exception.  


Within the life of the New Testament, we probably recollect a number of features of ‘family’ as an emerging picture of the church and as something eschatological and as an intimation of The Kingdom of God. One is the seemingly shocking statement made by Jesus Christ when his family come to root him out of a house where he is teaching and healing 24/7 and effectively neglecting them. His response is to cast his eyes around with a sweep of the hand and say: Everyone here is my family … what’s the problem? (St Mark 3.31-35) Again, at the foot of cross, a new family is formed in the death of Jesus Christ – before any assurace of his resurrection – Mary, John and Mary. It is at this specific point that Jesus hands over the care of his mother to John and of John to his mother as he hangs on the cross of crucifixion. (St John 19.26) If we Fast Forward, Pentecost is the formation of the church as we know it as a much bigger family, in Jerusalem, and out of the components of diversity, distinction and development: 
diversity because there is a wide range of people from a vast geographical area gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Shavuot; 
distinction because each speaks in his and her own language - and comprehension rather than confusion is the order of the day for this family of resurrection and ascension; 
development because new people who never had voice before now have voice and scope to share their discernment of the presence of God in the world of God’s creation: male and female, slave and free, younger and older all contribute to this new prophetic family of given faith rather than assumed entitlement. (Acts 2) And then there is the domestic character of the communities who form the nexus and network of the Pauline church across the Mediterranean Basin, often in the very locations where the Jews were already living. From time to time, we have the names of individuals - often in a chatty, friendly idom – as constituents of such families. The hand of history dealt to the Jews in AD 70 meant that a religion which had Temple, sacrifice, synagogue and home at its heart now makes it prayer and worship through a ritual of meal-making and meal-sharing domestically along with gathering for prayer and reading in the synagogue with no functioning Temple in Jerusalem and therefore no sacrifice. This remains the situation today.The family remains pivotal in modern Judaism and in the kibbutz concept whether it be Orthodox or Secular. 


Since The Letters and The Gospel of St John, the term: abide and abode are very much part of what it is to be family. In The Prologue, John is very clear about what constitutes being a member of the family of God; it is those born not of human stock, by the physical desire of a human father, but of God. (St John 1.13) This leads instantly into the divine-human mechanism by which this birth becomes possible: So the Word became flesh; he made his home (abode) among us …(St John 1.14). It also is played out in the interchange of Jesus and Nicodemus about being born again in St John 3. The family of eschatological membership and potentiality, the connection we all have in The Communion of Saints above and The Saints below, is hinted at in the Synoptic account of the painful meeting of Jesus and his family to which I alluded earlier as well as in the interchange with Nicodemus. This was when he was, in his self-understanding, simply about his Father’s business … as he had already told them in St Luke chapter 2 when they were searching frantically for him, as might every parent, in the crowd of adults and children returning home from Jerusalem to Nazareth and to the other villages of Galilee. He gives the same sense of continuity and creativity in abiding to the disciples who have been asking him why they cannot follow him where he must go, in St John 14:2: There are many abiding-places in my Father’s house; if it were not so, I should have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you. The obvious question, however, abides: Where and when?   


These components of family understanding enable us to think through what a family in the Judeao-Christian tradition might be. We must always remember that the criterion of a marriage/a wedding in the early church was and remains to this day the requirement that one party be a Christian. Clearly the hope and the expectation are that marriage be missional through a life of affection and activity that express the strengths and the vulnerabilities of intimate life in Christ, shared with one who may not be a Christian and may never be a Christian – but shared lovingly. We might conclude from this that family-membership is a springboard for an emerging instinct, tutored by the church at its best, as the urgent response to human adjacency and to neighbourliness, for care of oneself, of others inside and outside the family; the family, therefore, becomes a portal of witness in and to the world that is always of God’s creation and nurture, however flawed the church in time and space. For this to be a flourishing rather than simply a functioning, the family needs to be a place of responsive relationships. In regard to movement and settlement, God continues to form the community of family as we, for example in a nuclear family, meet each other without a sense of distance or hierarchy as members of the eschatological family of grace and reconciliation in the world and in the church. For the spiritually imaginative among us, the trailer contained in St John 10.16 … But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold; I must lead them as well … helps us to open up the dialogue and the conversation of life with those of World Faiths other than our own, within a living definition of family as humanity itself. We need always to remember that the children of Israel lived their lives in a Multi-Faith society almost all of which was beyond their control; this is a cautionary tale to any of us whose instinct is to reflate Old Christendom - like a balloon left over after a Birthday Party - as a place of entitled Christian dominance in a properly secular world.


The family has always been a focus of change as well as being a focus of continuity. This is its double strength. Some families are conservative and some families are radical. All of us who live in families are amateurs at constructing and enhancing family life. For this reason, forebearance and forgiveness are to be to the fore. In the cruel and complex globalized world in which we live, one in which the human person is commodified by advertizing or by trafficking, by the quest for celebrity status or by the exploitation of corruption and injustice, my prayer would be that first and last, last and first the family be a crucible of safety across generations and continents.  

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