Baker Academic

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Did Jesus Encourage Dead-beat Dads? - Le Donne

There is a passage in Luke that has been a source of discomfort for my students and friends. Every now and again I get asked about this episode:

Peter said, “Behold, we have left our own and followed You.” And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.” -Luke 18:28-30

So did Jesus encourage Dead-beat-Dadism? I tend to be cautious about sayings like this when I don't have an answer that seems compelling to me. I usually raise my eyebrows and cock my head and say something really patronizing and vague like, "That's one of those things, isn't it?" It is amazing that I still have any friends.

But I have become a bit more interested in this troubling saying of late. I occurs to me that Luke's portrait of Jesus also gives us this perplexing nugget:

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery." -Luke 16:18

So here is my question; and I will leave it open-ended: Could it be that a group of mixed-company disciples (men, women, young men who sprint away naked, a couple donkeys, etc.) who have left their families behind need to be reminded about fidelity?  If their families had been left behind, perhaps the severity of Jesus' stance on divorce was meant to maintain some degree of sexual restraint among his followers.  I suppose that I'm attempting to contextualize the dead-beat dad thing within the tradition that Luke has inherited.

Any thoughts?


  1. First, the verse you quoted is immediately following and within the same discourse as the "rich young ruler" account. Just like Jesus doesn't want his followers to literally give away all money (unless of course the parable of the "unrighteous steward" has been completely misunderstood), he also doesn't want his followers to literally leave families behind.

    He wanted them to give them up to him, raise their children not for their own sake but for the kingdom's. A relinquishment of attachment, to use the Buddhist perspective.

    It reminds me of Augustine's reflection after the death of his friend in The Confessions.

    "Woe to the madness which thinks to cherish human beings as though more than human [i.e. immortal].... Blessed is he who loves his friend in you and his enemy for your sake. He alone loses no one dear to him, to whom all are dear in the One who is never lost."

    Those are my thoughts.

  2. Two more possibilities:

    1)Like any military commander or adventurer about to begin a long campaign, Jesus the zionist revolutionary, is telling his followers to be prepared to leave their families. At least for a while. As Jesus goes to war. While the spoils will be their reward.

    But then there is a second, almost exactly opposite reading of all this:

    2) Jesus is trying to set up a chaste, ascetic, and in effect unmarried priesthood. He is demanding a priesthood that gives up the family, and the world, to follow God. (Making deadbeat dads and perpetrators of spousal abandonment, out of many). With no chance of a second marriage.

    By the way, Luke's Jesus gets even shockingly virulent on this subject, whatever it is. Jesus finally telling us to actually "hate" our biological families: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (John 14.26).

    There is evidence we are supposed to regard fellow believers, as our new families (Mat. 12.48; 23.8; Mark 3.34 ff; Luke 8.21). Though it would seem that sexual relations with each other are ruled out by the above (Luke 16.18).

    Traditionally priests have read all this as the call to a Catholic-type priesthood; leaving family, the world, money, marriage. To devote themselves, effectively unmarried, to the Lord. (Paul suggests that ex wives can come along; but should not have sexual relations?).

    To be sure, it is shocking to see Jesus telling us to abandon - and worse, even "hate" - our biological families.

    But shocking, even "hate"ful as all this is, this is one of the pillars of the unmarried Roman Catholic priesthood.

    1. Anonymous:

      Luke 14:26 (I think you mis-referenced John 14:26) is a place where one might disagree with the common English translation, "hate." As with many English words, this one in the Greek, μισέω, had a wide range of meanings. It could mean "hate"--i.e. detest/loathe--or it could mean "disregard, in contrast of preferential treatment" (BDAG).

      Here's more of what the BDAG says: "The Eng. term 'hate' generally suggests affective connotations that do not always do justice especially to some Semitic shame-honor oriented use of μ., in the sense 'hold in disfavor, be disinclined to, have relatively little regard for.'"

      In this way, if we look at the whole of Jesus teachings and character, which end of the range of meanings of μισέω would we suppose Jesus to be using?


      Matt. 12:50-"For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."

      Mark 3:34-"Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers!'"

      It seems, then, that Jesus was not calling his followers to detest and loathe their biological families, but to instead rethink what family meant, considering the biological family as nothing more than the spiritual one. New kingdom language, it seems.

    2. So 1) our current Bibles are wrong? And they get Christ wrong? When they translate Jesus as telling us to "hate" our families? ("Hate" being too strong a word?).

      And/or 2) Jesus was merely telling us to "disregard" (BDAG)our biological families?

      3) Which is proof that Jesus wanted us to stay married and have families?

    3. 1) Probably. There is a strong holding to traditional translation. People go nuts when a word that's been translated one way for centuries is changed based on better, newer evidence.
      2) Plausibly.
      3) Plausibly.

  3. Anthony, I want to stay as close to the questions you’ve asked as possible. Did mixed company disciples need to be reminded about fidelity and warned against adultery? Possibly, doesn’t everybody? We might imagine that people loosed from the traditional constraints of family and home town might need to be reined in a little. Or not. But it couldn’t hurt to give them a warning.

    Is this what Luke 16:18 is about, a reminder to the disciples not to misbehave sexually while “on the road”? That question gets more interesting the more I think about it. Look at the context of Luke 16:16-17: “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.”

    I don’t understand Luke 16:16-18. I THINK Jesus is saying that people want to enter the kingdom of God by force, not that I know what he means by that, but I’m guessing that this is not a good thing to try to do. I THINK Luke 16:17 is Jesus’ broad response: to those who would try to enter the kingdom by force, understand that the law is not going anywhere (at least not for a while). Does this mean that Jesus saw a danger, that in the rush for the kingdom people would assume that the law was no longer in effect and would behave immorally? So that he followed his general warning about no dropping of letters in the law with a more specific warning about divorce + remarriage = sexual immorality?

    I guess that such an interpretation is possible, but the more I think about it, the more I think I’m crawling out on a limb.

  4. I hear it as a challenge to utter commitment in a culture where family relationships were everything. The social cost was very high for not fulfilling one's obligations to parents, wife and family.

    I also hear it in light of the conflict that disciples would go through with others in their family who didn't believe. In the Matthew 10 parallel, Jesus talks about families being divided over him, "father against son and son against father, mother against daughter..." etc. He seems to be telling his disciples that they may be forced to choose between following him and their most precious relationships.

    Peter is telling Jesus that this is exactly what has happened - they've lost family relationships for the sake of following him. And Jesus is reassuring him that ultimately his sacrifice will be rewarded.

  5. Luke 18:28-30 is a rehashing of Mark 10:28-30 and reflects the case of the Christian converts who had to leave behind family members (through eviction or voluntarily) because of their new faith (see also Matthew 10:37-39, Mark 3:34-35 & Luke 12:51-53). They were promised great rewards and eternal life as a compensation for their loss. This saying appears to have been redacted later by a Christian, most likely "Mark".

    Luke 16:18 is also a rehash, this time of Mark 10:11-12, itsef a rewrite of 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 (which has no mention of adultery). Paul said he got the command from the Lord, which is rather doubtful.

    The interesting thing about Lk 16:18 is that remarrying divorced women are never said to be at fault, contrary to Mark version.

    I do not see a connection between the two sayings.

  6. With military and/or social/religious revolutions, and social structure/law to some degree breaking down,it is tempting to disregard all laws altogether; including moral laws. But here Jesus seems rather stern in an innovative way; he doesn't even allow re-marriage in this situation. Would Jesus therefore allow stretching sexual mores here?

    Possibly to be sure Jesus re-defined "family" as an elective ideological/spiritual affinity group. Even the Church was apparently to re-define "marriage" at times, as a priest's - or nun's, or everyday believer's - relation with Jesus. (Cf. the "marriage of the lamb").

    So at least the affective or spiritual side of traditional male/female relations, marriage, was being subtly transmogrified. Difficult to say though, what Jesus would have said about the specifically sexual part. Rumor is to be sure that gay priests in the recent Pederastygate scandal, theologically defended their position; possibly with some argument based on something like the above.

    Jesus in any case seemed to hint that a religious revolution eventually changes many laws. And while Jesus seems to have suggested in Luke that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away before such changes could be made (Luke 16.17), Jesus also said too, that after all, "Heaven and earth will pass away" (Mat. 24.35; Mark 13.31; Luke 21.33.

    Which gets into the "Destruction of Heaven" theology; the many references in the Bible to Heaven itself after all, being destroyed, "dissolved" by God himself (Isa. 34.4 ff., 51.6; 2 Peter 3.7-12; Rev. 21; etc. Ref. Dr. Woodbridge Goodman).

    Marital - and perhaps sexual- mores might be changed some day, it might seem therefore. Though Jesus/Luke seem to have felt that their own time was too early for that.

    I suppose a radical theologian might suggest that Jesus was taking apart traditional family structure, and/or was using it as at most a metaphor at most for other new, spiritual affinities. And even that while he was redefining marriage, and/or forbidding re-marriage, Jesus (as oppposed to Paul), wasn't entirely forbidding sexual "immoralities," as Paul might have.

    If Jesus had a girlfriend, that would for instance change things a bit. Such things do not seem to be specifically and explicitly forbidden by Jesus himself. Who in fact if anything, didn't seem to like literal, traditional marriages much. Though he seemed to honor a "Father."

    - Britt/Anon

  7. Bearing in mind that I tend to read a good ol' thoroughgoing eschatological Jesus, but I've always interpreted this in terms of an apocalyptic rejection of the existing order. I just wrote an article about the "eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven" in Matt. 19, arguing that Jesus was saying that childlessness and celibacy were preferable paths, since procreation is unnecessary in the coming Kingdom, but that most are incapable of that degree of continence (cf. 1 Cor. 7).

    1. That would be the classic reading. Though once you put all those guys together, with no chance for them to get/stay married to a woman, then what often happens?

      By the way, if you like eschatological stuff: many earlier Greek dramas have future heroes marching off to war - and explicitly and dramatically, tearfully abandoning their families. So there's a Hellenistic precedent here too.

      And to put these two together: there are the Spartans.

      - Brett