Families weren't perfect in the Bible, but we can still learn from them.
The recent meetings of the Synod of Bishops on the family were in part an attempt to invite families to join in the church’s work of evangelization. Instead of the judgment many Catholics associate with family life, the synod documents spoke of a “Gospel of the family” and a God of mercy. The Gospels, however, offer a more complicated and hopeful message about ordinary families.
Families sometimes see the church as a place of rules and judgment rather than wisdom and mercy. The Holy Family gets in the way of efforts to invite families to take part in the work of the church. It is not just the seemingly perfect family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but the images of families that tend to grace the covers of Catholic magazines and the actual families that are most likely to be asked to carry up the gifts on Sundays. These iconic and real-life models of holiness can alienate those who feel their households will never compare.
And yet the Gospel provides a diversity of models of faithfulness and mercy. It is not limited to allegedly ideal families who provide mercy to less than ideal families.
The Gospel of the Family
When the phrase “Gospel of the family” surfaced in discussions prior to the synod assemblies, many were confused. Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke on the topic at the Vatican in the fall of 2014 and later published the text of his remarks as a short book. He claimed not to be breaking new ground but only to be expressing something that is ancient and yet “always new.”
In a sense, this is true. Many church documents link together the creation accounts in Genesis, the Golden Rule (Mt 7:12, 22:40; Lk 6:31), the Ten Commandments, the Holy Family, the story of the wedding feast at Cana (Jn 2:1-12), images of Jesus as bridegroom, Jesus’ teaching on divorce and the household codes in the Pauline letters (Col 3:18-4:1, Eph 5:21-6:9, 1 Pt 2:18-3:7). Yet there is something new about calling all of this a “Gospel of the family,” especially since it seems to imply that family life is central to the Gospel. Even Cardinal Kasper admits that the import of earthly marriage is “relativized” because Jesus “demanded a readiness to forsake marriage and family (Mt 10:37) and, from those to whom the gift was given, celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 9:12).”
But not much is made of this remarkable lack of focus on the family in the Gospels. Cardinal Kasper simply claims that members of a “new family of brothers and sisters (Mt 12:48-50;19:27-29)” are there to support and carry one another, and moves on. In a cultural context in which marriage has become more difficult to choose and sustain, it may be crucial to find and emphasize all of the affirmation of family the Gospel has to offer. Still, the cardinal’s reading seems to gloss over what is most distinctive in the most foundational of Christian texts.
In fact, even the most familiar and oft-quoted Scripture passages are not quite as affirming of family as one might imagine. The Genesis creation narratives give us hints of marital intimacy (“one flesh union”), equality (“bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”) and generativity (“be fruitful and multiply”), but not a compelling portrait of lifelong marriage or a vision of a close and loving family, nuclear or otherwise. The famous household codes of Colossians, Ephesians and 1 Peter paint a positive picture of the well-ordered home that seems designed to fit into a well-ordered society, while softening the authority of male heads of household with Christian compassion. Children are to submit to parents, wives to husbands and slaves to masters, though all earthly submission is modified by the ultimate submission of believers to Christ.
Whether this instruction is taken as a departure from the discipleship of equals preached by Jesus, progressive in its context or timeless (scholars disagree), it does not quite capture the reality of contemporary family life, which is probably why few contemporary brides and grooms choose it for their wedding liturgies.
Families today are ordered more by loving activity than by submission. The lives of families are marked by meals at a table or in a car, basketball games, dance lessons, school picnics, child and elder care, parish festivals, homework and big screen televisions. Family life might include date nights for parents who are expected to grow in love; bedtime reading rituals for parents and children who, it is hoped, develop strong bonds; graduation ceremonies, birthday parties and anniversary celebrations all designed to celebrate the love that is only briefly alluded to in the best-known passages of Scripture.
Cardinal Kasper works with this tradition by emphasizing the positive and adding what we might call stories of mercy to the canon of the Gospel of the family. He affirms the ideal and adds mercy. We have Genesis and Ephesians, but we also have the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11) and the woman at the well (Jn 4:1-26). For Kasper, to understand the Gospel as it relates to family is to see the beauty of the ideal while remembering Jesus’ ministry marked by mercy. Placing both together allows for a full picture of the Gospel of the family.
Models of Mercy
This approach is helpful yet limited. It is helpful because people yearn for mercy, especially in relation to an ideal family life. This is why Pope Francis’ insistence on accompaniment as the mark of the church’s approach to families is so right and so well received. The church ought to be walking with all who are heavy burdened, offering light and companionship. It is limited because the imperfect or “irregular” remain subjects of mercy. In the Gospels, they are often models of mercy.
As Pope Francis points out in “The Joy of Love,” the Gospel is full of the messy reality of family life. He notes examples of anger, betrayal and separation. But it is also important not to miss the diversity of characters in the Gospel narratives, including singles, children and the church itself.
There are many singles in the Gospels: single adults, single parents, widows and vowed celibates. The disciples who are called to leave work to follow Jesus must also leave family behind (Mk 1:16-20). Both critics and sympathetic historians of early Christianity report that early Christian communities included vowed celibates and celibate married couples. Wealthy widows are known to have been sources of financial support and hospitality for apostles charged with traveling and spreading the faith (Lk 8:3).
Even our most familiar stories fail to fit into a neat “family” box. Are shepherds and wise men married? Where is the mother of the prodigal son (Lk 15: 11-32)? Does the woman who searches for the lost coin have a family (Lk 15:8-10)? The infancy narratives tell of a Messiah born into an atypical family. Joseph drops out of the Gospel after stories of Jesus’ youth, leading tradition to assume Mary’s early widowhood. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are strong siblings whom Jesus loved, but they do not seem to have spouses (Jn 11). Paul, of course, is single, and so, it seems, are many of his co-workers: Barnabas (Acts 11:27-30), Thecla (in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla) and Phoebe (Rm 16:1-2).
Other than the young Holy Family and missionary couples like Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor 16:19), married couples are far rarer than singles in Scripture. And adults who appear to be single, like Jairus who seeks healing for his daughter (Mk 5:21-24), the father of the prodigal son, the woman who searches for the lost coin and the widow who offers her two very small coins (Lk 21:1-4), are often models of mercy.
When Jesus speaks of children, he holds them up as models of faith (Lk 18:15-17), associates himself with them as he does only with the poor, tells his hearers to care for them (Mk 9:36-37) and suggests that those who fail children are guilty of grievous wrongdoing (Mt 18:6). But nowhere does he speak of parents’ responsibility for children or of children’s for their parents (though of course he would have assumed these duties). Worthy of attention in themselves, children are models of faith and mercy.
The early church community was not exactly a “family of families.” While some baptisms involved whole families, in other cases, faith, like a sword, divided families (Mt 10:34-36). The fact that sometimes women, slaves and children converted on their own was controversial for some critics of early Christianity, for whom religion was inextricably tied to the patriarchal household. Christians were known for prizing single-hearted discipleship, not “family values.” Some labeled them “homewreckers.”
The church is the most significant family in the Gospels, the place where followers address each other as brother and sister. Its strength is the only thing that makes the hard sayings of Jesus on family comprehensible (Lk 14:26). Discipleship to Jesus always comes first, before burying a dead father (Lk 9:59-60) and loyalty to one’s family of origin (Mk 3:31-35). In the Gospels, the people of faith, those who “hear the word and keep it,” are a new kind of kin, a radically inclusive community bent on mercy.
Learning From Real Families
The Gospel “on” the family (perhaps not “of” the family) should be the context for contemporary Christian thinking about family. Our sense of what family means, why it is significant and how to approach it should flow from this place, with full recognition of its strangeness in its own time, as well as its strangeness in relation to our own.
And yet the church also moves in the world, learns from the world and develops. The Christian community has the ongoing task of discerning what to take in and what to bypass. The Christian tradition has grown in its esteem for the intimate love of spouses, parents and children, and that is a good thing. Pope Francis’ “The Joy of Love” continues that growth in appreciation for familial love and offers a more inclusive vision by taking from the Gospel an emphasis on mercy for the imperfect. But if the Christian community seeks to be truly welcoming, it might also learn from the Gospel recognition of the modeling of mercy in “imperfect” families.
When I was in Nicaragua with students in 2008, I stayed in a home with four young girls, their mother Lidia (not her real name) and their grandparents. During my first night in their home, I brought out a picture of my own family to share with them. Lidia complimented me on my beautiful family—a mother and father, three sons perched on a sofa in a living room. Then she told me about her family. She expressed her great shame at being without her husband, who had left her for another woman. “I wanted what you have,” she explained, “but it didn’t work out that way.” I listened as she spoke for hours about the difficulties of life as a single mother in Managua.
Yet during the whole two weeks I was there, I observed a welcoming, loving family. Lidia rose before dawn to cook breakfast, iron clothes and get her daughters out the door in time to catch the bus to school. The grandmother blessed all of the family members as they left the house, and me as well. Lidia went to work and came home to cook dinner. In the evenings the family often gathered to watch telenovellas or comedy shows on television. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of love. I never heard Lidia raise her voice, even in the morning rush, which struck me because mornings at my house in those days were not nearly so calm.
On the feast of Corpus Christi we helped to decorate altars throughout the neighborhood, walked in a long procession and went to Mass together. When I was embarrassed in church because I had forgotten to bring money for the collection, Lidia handed me a coin to place in the basket.
Was this family broken and in need of mercy? Perhaps. But like many of the households we encounter in Scripture, it was also a model of mercy. Lidia, like the woman searching for her lost coin and the father of the prodigal son, loves beyond measure.
The synod on the family will be significant if the take-away is not only a renewal of the church’s commitment to welcome everyone to the table in spite of imperfection, but if it allows Christians to remember that the paradigmatic meal in the Gospels is not the family meal. It is a meal celebrated at a table where prostitutes, tax collectors and friends eat and talk with Jesus. There is no father or mother at the head of the table, only an odd assortment of seekers, sinners and disciples gathered to share fellowship. This is the Gospel of family. This is the Gospel of mercy.