We desperately want people, especially family members, to do the right thing when they screw up. We want the sister to return the antique wedding ring she took from grandma’s house when grandma went into the convalescent hospital. We want the immature niece who sleeps around and lies to grow some self-respect and stop hurting her parents. We want the sketchy uncle who borrowed money from his nephew to invest in a long-shot business venture to pay it back. We want the granddaughter who stole checks from grandma’s purse to get money for drugs to say she’s sorry, stop embarrassing her family, and turn her life around. We want the failing adolescent son to quit lying about who he hangs with after school, get motivated, and show his parents more respect. We want the older brother to stop harboring bitterness and resentment because his siblings made better life choices.
The variety and severity of drama within some families staggers our sensibilities. Coarse behavior, deception, betrayal, meanness, jealousy; these roots of contention are endless.
In Luke 12 Jesus is talking to a crowd about spiritual matters such as: hypocrisy, especially religious hypocrisy; fearing God instead of people; how much God values us; the problem with being ashamed of Christ in public; relying on the Holy Spirit for the correct words against accusations. In the first part of this chapter Jesus is cruising along delivering a profound sermon when something happens in verses 13 and 14:
“Then someone called from the crowd (the original translation says a Man in the crowd), ‘Teacher, please tell my brother to divide our father’s estate with me.’
Jesus relied, ‘Friend, who made me a judge over you to decide such things as that?’”
The Man’s plea for Jesus to arbitrate a family dispute over inheritance comes off as a non-sequitur; a statement that does not logically follow anything previously said (something my wife’s grandmother has mastered, which makes for entertaining conversation at the Thanksgiving table).
Even though the Man in the crowd speaks out of turn, I find this a troublesome Scripture. Yep, I struggle with it because Jesus’ response seems abrupt and uncaring. If God is all about relationships, how come he doesn’t appear to care about the Man’s family problems?
But I noticed something special about this incident: it seemed to change the content and direction of Jesus’ sermon. For the next several verses Jesus talks about dangers inherent in money and possessions. In verse 21 Christ says: “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”
I think this change in topic could be a response to what Christ perceived in the heart of the Man who cried out for help with his brother and the family inheritance. The Man was likely less interested in restoring his relationship with his brother than he was with getting his share of the inheritance, although for many the two go hand in hand.
Nevertheless, I get it. I get that a healthy relationship with God is the only relationship that can’t go awry. But I still get frustrated and filled with despair when I see family members clearly behaving inappropriately. I long for God to intervene and make things right between kin. And I can’t, with a clear conscience, offer you a trite summation that will fix family drama. The reality is that our most intimate familial relationships often don’t work. People don’t do the right thing and we can’t make them. And if I may make so bold, it can appear that God does not make people do the right thing. I’ve watched people carry hurts and grudges against family members to their grave, never resolving their conflicts. No forgiveness offered and none sought or received. Tragic!
I wonder what Jesus would have said to the Man in the crowd if the Man’s motives had been pure, if the Man had really wanted a restored relationship with his brother? I can just imagine God thinking, that’s exactly right! I’ve been trying to win my people over for thousands of years and they keep taking advantage and insulting me.
I believe our family relationships would generally go better if we have a good relationship with God, but it’s no guarantee of relational utopia. One thing is certain: our family drama will be worse if we don’t have a good relationship with God.