By Blogger Dr. Karin Heller
I was really struck by one of the things you said in class Friday night and I have been going over it in my mind ever since. I won’t be able to quote you exactly, but you made reference that to put the love of your husband, and even children before the love of Christ is considered idolatry. To me, it feels wrong to put the love of anyone, thing, entity, God, Christ, before the love of my children. My children were given to me by God, and as such it seems that he would want me to love them completely. I’m feeling tremendously guilty for feeling that way as I never thought of the love I have for my children as idolatry. Did I misunderstand the meaning in the lecture? Am I committing one of the worst possible sins by loving my children in this way? That seems wrong to me.
No, you didn’t misunderstand me! But here is more about it. The event of Jesus of Nazareth consistently challenges family values, including Jewish values, which were very high. The gospels, in particular, convey to us some hard issues to ponder. These issues are the following ones. Jesus says, “Who prefers father or mother, son or daughter to me, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37-38) and, “Who comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and his own life, too, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-26). The only person NOT mentioned in these lists is the “husband”, because in a patriarchal society where Jesus lived, it was simply NOT conceivable for a woman to leave her husband and follow Jesus, although a husband could!!! No gender equality at this time … But the text makes it clear that parents cannot put their children above Jesus.
In the Catholic tradition we have the case of Saint Joan of Chantal, widow and mother of four children. She founded a religious community, the Order of the Visitation, together with St. Francis of Sales in the 17th century. When she left her home to enter the convent, her youngest son who was 14 years old, is said to have thrown himself over the threshold. His mother stepped over his body. Well, there are situations like these … I had to love God and Christ more than my parents and had to choose between my parents and Jesus! It was very heart breaking, just as heart breaking, I guess, would be the choice between one’s love for his/her children and Christ. Things may not always turn out as radical as these, especially in a Christian family, where parents and children are united by the same faith and where love is not the effort to transform the other in what “I” want him/her to be, but where love is to set the other free so that he/she can truly become whom God wants him/her to be.
However, marriage and a family always run the risk to end up in mutual idolatry, that’s what the gospels underline! So, if one wants to avoid this temptation, then it’s better to follow Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7 and remain single for the sake of Christ! Only 20 years later, in 1 Timothy 5:14 Paul changes mind and becomes more in favor of marriage. Marriage lived out as a way to follow Jesus is a tough thing! I walked on a spiritual journey with a French countess for four years until her death. She struggled a lot over the love her already deceased husband and son. She all put them BEFORE Jesus. Only a dream in which Jesus appeared to her, delivered her from this idolatry and she was 90 at that time! She passed away very peacefully … I was with her eight hours before her death … she had learned to find her beloved ones IN Jesus alone! Jesus had to be reached first, and then in him she had found her beloved ones, too!
Dr. Karin Heller is a professor on the theology faculty at Whitworth University. Her blog, Table Talk with Dr. Karin Heller, features her responses to questions that students have asked her over the years. Check back each week to see new posts, and if you have a question leave it in the comment section below!