Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF CONTROVERSIAL passages in the New Testament. One of them is read at the Divine Liturgy on the sixth Saturday after Pentecost. We hear the Lord tell His followers, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39).

A Special Audience

The first thing we should note it that in Matthew’s Gospel these words are not addressed to all Jesus’ followers but to the Twelve whom He was sending out to the surrounding towns and villages to proclaim the Kingdom of God. In time, as we know, they would bring this Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, the first of countless men and women who would leave everything for distant lands in the service of the Gospel. He warned them what to expect in their mission and consoled them that God will be with them, “But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you” (vv. 17-20). What the Lord Jesus seems to be doing in v. 37 is revising the Ten Commandments for His disciples – hardly something an ordinary rabbi would dream of doing! In fact, Matthew is presenting Jesus as more than a rabbi or even as a prophet but as the One who is entitled to edit the Law because He is the one who originally gave the Law to Moses. As He restated the commandments about killing and adultery (“You have heard it said… but I say to you…”), so here He puts the commandment to honor one’s parents in a new light, for His closest followers. Blood relationships are not as important as the union they would have with God in Christ.

The Family in Society

We all learned the first part of the command to honor parents when we were children. We may never have heard the remainder of this precept which roots it in the social order of Israel. The fullest form of the commandment found in the Torah is this: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may be well with you in the land which the Lord  your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16). Keeping this commandment was seen as essential to the well-being of the people of Israel. Parenthood in our society is colored by images of the nuclear family and the sentiment of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In the ancient world – and in some traditional societies even today – the family existed more for social than sentimental purposes: for the preservation of the clan or race rather than for domestic bliss. People married in order to have children so that their family or nation could continue. Survival of the race or family was dependent on the strength of the next generation and so the greatest responsibility of the present generation is to produce sons and daughters. This is why, in the psalm which we still sing at the mystery of Crowning, a family’s blessedness is described in terms of childbearing: “Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the very heart of your house, your children like olive plants all around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalms 128:3-4). In our society the decision to have children is viewed purely as a matter of personal choice with no reference to any wider interest. In Israel this was not the case. If a couple did not have children it was thought a curse, and their relatives and neighbors would revile them – they were failing their people in a most fundamental way. Thus, when the childless Elizabeth had conceived John the Baptist in her old age she cried, “Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people” (Luke 1:25).

A New Community

The new community Christ was establishing did not depend on giving birth to children as the means of perpetuating it. The Church would be built on something else. Two incidents in the Gospels show us what Christ considered as the basis of His new people. In both He presents a new alternative to blood relationships as the determining characteristic of His people. The first scene is found in Matthew. “While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him.  Then one said to Him, ‘Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.’ But He answered and said to the one who told Him, ‘Who is My mother and who are My brothers?’  And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12:46-50). At that time James and the Lord’s other relatives were not among His disciples. That changed when the risen Christ appeared to James (c.f., 1 Corinthians 15:7). Several family members would become leaders of the fledgling Church. Another incident is recorded in Luke. “And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!’ But He said, ‘More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Luke 11:27-28). While physical descent from the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made a person a member of the people of Israel, this would not be the case in the Church. It was now hearing God’s word and doing His will, rather than any physical relationship, which would make a person part of Christ’s new family. As St Paul would write, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28).

The Witness of the Martyrs

The stories of the early martyrs show that the first Christians took the Lord’s teaching seriously. Christ’s teaching about the value of blood relationships took root in the early Church. One’s clan, tribe or race was not as important as the kingdom of God. Early martyrs such as St Barbara and St Christina refused their fathers’ demands that they renounce their new-found Christian faith. Their fathers had them beaten and, when that did not change their minds, handed them over to the authorities. In the case of St Barbara, her own father was her executioner, fulfilling Christ’s warning, “Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death.  And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:21-22). In other cases Christian family members encouraged their relatives to stand firm against their persecutors. The wife and mother of St James the Persian and the mother of Meliton, one of the forty holy martyrs of Sebaste are remembered for the way they supported their suffering loved ones, confident that he who endures to the end will be saved.
   

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