I remember once at a UN meeting in Geneva, a delegate from a Western country proposed a redefinition of the family. Rather than basing family relations on flesh and blood, she said, the family should be based on relations of economic dependence. I recall taking the microphone and saying that this new definition meant that the budgie and the dog were now members of the family on the same footing as a child. I was then told that I was being ridiculous…
Redefining even the most ancient of realities is a trick widely used in Western society to justify “modern” behaviours and lifestyles long considered immoral. We have redefined marriage, gender, the unborn child, the conjugal act and so on, in order to justify or legalise sin. There’s nothing new in this. It hails from our first parents who let themselves be talked into the sin of pride and disobedience as if it were a legitimate exercise of self-determination.
This redefining game tends to lay aside the broader and fuller picture of things. It focuses narrowly on one aspect of something, the desired aspect, and redefines it accordingly. “What is right/wrong” is replaced with “what I like or don’t like”, or what is practical. Eve, for example, focused on the pleasing aspect of what was forbidden, casting aside all that God had said to her and warned her about. Adam promptly joined in – after all, he saw that Eve had not dropped dead after tasting the forbidden. They both simply ignored the truth that God had created them, given them everything including their own selves, had made intimate company with them in the evening breeze and had instructed them on what to do to avoid death. The prohibition he had laid down was simply facing them with the fact that they were limited, created beings. They should not therefore deceive themselves, or be deceived, into thinking that they were gods, unlimited; they were not their own origin or creator and if they forgot that and pretended they were, it would lead to self-destruction. Fantasy would destroy reality.
And isn’t that so true? If you try to be what you cannot possibly be, you will not only not be what you try to be: you will risk the loss of being what you actually are. Reality is what it is. We may not like it, but not liking it doesn’t make it any less real. If we try to pretend it is not there, or to distort it to suit our own likes, we are failing to be real, we are living a fantasy, we are living in denial. A banker who knows one plus one equals two but “does not like it”, still has to accept it if he does not want to ruin his work and his career.
The refusal to accept reality leads to all sorts of mental illness. When reality is painful, it is very understandable that we want to reject or refuse it. Still, unless we face it, with all the help we need, the pain will not go away. Psychology tells us that when pain is repressed it is still present in the subconscious and only gets worse until and unless we deal with it. Redefining reality, denying reality is leading us to create. not a fantastic world, but a world of fantasy, a world in which lies and denial deceive us and made us mad.
So, whether it is the true nature of the family, or the true meaning of God’s prohibition to Adam and Eve or the basic truths of arithmetic, reality must be accepted. We need the courage to accept the real so that we can ourselves be real. And this is precisely what the Lord puts before us when he says those very difficult words in today’s Gospel reading: “Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me. Anyone who prefers son or daughter to me is not worthy of me.”
I remember at that same UN meeting I mentioned already that a delegate from another Western country proclaimed that the traditional family as we know it “is over.” He then recited statistics about divorce, children in care, the reduction in marriages and violent crime in the home. It was pretty grim stuff. I suggested to the meeting that in all probability there was not one divorced spouse or one child from a broken home who did not wish that their marriage had not failed or that their home had not broken up. And from the number of delegates who spoke to me after the meeting with tears in their eyes, I gathered they agreed. You don’t model marriage or the family on failed marriages or broken families, however much love and care and compassion we must show them. You don’t take the sorry tale of statistics reflecting failure as the basis of your policies for family and marriage. No, you invest your money and energy and political capital in what works. You recover the true meaning and values of marriage and family and pursue these with creativity, courage and commitment.
The Christian perspective places the origin and meaning of marriage and the family in the loving hands of the Creator. It likewise places the recovery of marriage and the family after original sin in the loving hands of the Redeemer. It therefore subjects each and all of the relationships within marriage and the family to the individual member’s relationship with creative and redemptive God. In other words, family ties only exist because the Lord has given them to exist. No man or woman has given him/herself existence, so no marriage finds its origin only in the spouses. No child born of her parents came into existence only because of her parents. Parents pro-create but only God creates. The roots of our being are thrust into the Creator and Redeemer God and pass through the loving, caring and care-taker hands of our parents. As the spouses are asked in the rite of marriage: “Will you accept children lovingly from God and bring them up according to the law of God and of his Holy Catholic Church?” Our children are God’s children, entrusted to us not solely nor primarily to help them know the world and find their way in the world, but to know God and to find their way to God in this world and into eternal life.
And so, Christ in today’s Gospel is facing us all, for we all belong to a family, with the basic truth of the first and fourth commandments. The first: “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” We human beings can make idols of anything and anyone, including a spouse or a family member. But the first place belongs only to God. God asserts his primacy. And he does so not out of some twisted divine self-concern. He does it for our own good, so that we do not repeat the mistake of Adam and Eve. Then there is the fourth commandment: “Honour your father and your mother” and, by extension, “cherish and respect your son or your daughter.” The fourth commandment is the first of seven commandments which refer to our relationships with others. But it only comes after the three which concern our relationship with God. In fact, if we do not get the first three right, which includes keeping holy every Sabbath day, then we put the rest in jeopardy.
Hence it is that each of us has to examine himself: if it came to it, would I prefer a family member to Christ? And there is no getting away from the difficult words of Jesus: Whoever prefers mother, father, son, daughter, husband or wife to me is not worthy of me. The best way to love all of these is to love the Lord first, to love them in the Lord, to love them because of the Lord, to love them towards the Lord and into the Lord. We cannot do that by our own strength. May the Lord in His mercy empower us with His Spirit to do so. It will transform our marriages and families and, hope springs eternal, even our society to make them truly worthy of Jesus Christ. May He reign supreme in our hearts and in our homes!