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Family Values

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting,16th of Sixth Month, 2024

Speaker: Tom Hamm

Essau sells Jacob his birthright - Cornelis Wael

I imagine that I was not alone in noting the campaign ads for one of the candidates for Wayne County judge in the primary election last month. He pledged that on the bench he would be committed to “family values.” Generally, I think that families are good things, but experience has shown me that different families have different values. Growing up in the Hamm family, I’d have to say that the values inculcated in me were three: join the union, never sell land, and when in doubt, vote for the Democrat. Over the course of my life, I’ve held fast to only one of those. And I’ve had good friends whose values were the opposite of these.

The people who tend to talk most about “family values” today are people who see families in very traditional terms: married heterosexual mother and father, with the father as the head of the family, firmly anchored in “biblical values.” I think that as a Quaker congregation that has intentionally defined itself as welcoming and inclusive, we would see that as one model that a family might embrace, but certainly not the only one. Defenders of the “traditional” family invariably ground their embrace of it on Scripture. They are following the models set forth in the Bible, obedient to biblical rules and guidelines as all good Christians should be.

I’m sure that it is coincidence that I was invited to speak today, on Father’s Day. But it may have been meant to be, since for some time I’ve been thinking about the models of family life we see in the Bible. This morning I want to suggest that in fact in Scripture we see a number of bad examples. But there is hope, with the new dispensation that came with Christ we get some ideas of a better kind of family.

Let me start with bad examples. The Scripture that Eric read gives us one—the family of Isaac and Rebecca and their twin sons Esau and Jacob. We have sibling rivalry, we have parents each with their favorite, we have the scheming younger brother taking advantage of the older. All of this will come to a head when, aided by his mother, Jacob uses his father Isaac’s blindness to take a blessing that was intended for Esau. Add lies and deception and fraud to what was happening in the household of Isaac.

In fact the accounts of the patriarchs we find in Genesis do not give us very many examples of what today we would consider happy, well-functioning families. In Adam and Eve’s family, son Cain kills their other son Abel. Fast forward to their descendant Noah. After surviving the destruction of the world in his ark, he gets drunk and is offended by what he considers the disrespectful behavior of his son Ham. Noah responds with a curse on that branch of the family. Then we come to Abraham. He has two sons by different women, Ishmael by slave girl Hagar, Isaac by his wife Sarah. Sarah becomes jealous when Hagar puts on airs and insists on driving the rival woman and innocent child into the desert. The problems of Isaac and Rebecca we have already reviewed. Then we have the family life of Jacob. He had, in addition to two concubines, two wives, sisters Leah and Rachel, who apparently did not get on. Admittedly, things did not get off to a good start when their father deceived Jacob by marrying him to Leah when Jacob thought that he was getting Rachel. And Jacob’s twelve sons were not models of brotherly love. Son Joseph annoyed his brothers partly with tattling to their father about their misdeeds, but mostly by his dreams in which we foresaw that he would be greater than they. Add to that Jacob’s favoritism, and you have some tensions. How do Jacob’s boys resolve it? First, they decide to kill Joseph, then decide to make a profit from ridding themselves of him by selling him to some slave traders. Any one of these today would involve law enforcement and Child Protective Services and would provide fodder for cable tv. And remember, we are told that these are people that God favors, that he has chosen to be the progenitors of his chosen people Israel.

Certain assumptions about family life come through clearly in these accounts. One is that the husband and father is all-powerful. Later, when Moses is handing down the Law to the Israelites, we are told that a father has the right to put to death a disrespectful or disobedient child. Another is primogeniture. The assumption is that the eldest legitimate son will be favored. A third is that polygamy is perfectly acceptable.

Fortunately, I think that even the most committed fundamentalist Christians today implicitly concede that the Patriarchs are not the best models for the husband and father. There have been exceptions, even among Quakers. In 1910, a Quaker minister turned Pentecostal who also ran a Bible college in Alliance, Ohio, Levi Lupton, found himself with a wife who was unable to give him a child. So he imitated the example of the patriarchs and took the 27-year-old secretary of his Bible college as his handmaid. When their son was born, this, needless to say, attracted attention, all unfavorable. And even though Levi was one of the founders of the Assemblies of God church, they understandably don’t talk much about him.

If this was all that the Bible had to tell us about families, we would not be in a good place. But fortunately we have other examples on which to draw. Here I think that as in so many other ways, the coming of Jesus Christ inaugurated a new dispensation, a new vision of what life should be. Central to this vision were love, kindness, and forgiveness, and at least an implicit rejection of some of the values of the Patriarchs.

We get a forerunner of this in the last appearance of Esau in the book of Genesis. Rabbinic tradition usually puts Esau in a bad light. He was foolish and impulsive, and he was the ancestor of the Edomites, later the mortal enemies of the children of Israel. Angry over how his brother Jacob had wronged him, he fumed that when their father was dead, he would kill Jacob. So Jacob fled to the land of his mother’s kinsman Laban, whose daughters he married and where he had prospered. But then God told Jacob: “Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good.” So Jacob did. When he heard that Esau was coming to meet him with a large entourage, he was afraid. But as the authors of Genesis tell us, “Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him and they wept.” Jacob apparently had planned to try to placate Esau by offering him some of the wealth he had acquired, but Esau responded: “I have enough, my brother, keep what you have for yourself.”

Here we see, I think, in Esau two elements of what would be the heart of the message of Christ. The first is that redemption is possible. Esau had been foolish and vengeful. But apparently, he came to see the error of his ways. The second element is forgiveness. Esau lives out the teachings of Jesus. We are told in the Gospel of Matthew that:

  Peter came to Jesus and asked,

 “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

If ever anyone had reason to hold a grudge, Esau did. But he forgave.

In the New Testament, families and heads of families are not nearly as prominent as in the Old. No mention is made of Jesus having a wife or children, although there are traditions of that outside the Bible. It appears that at least some of Jesus’s disciples were married men who left their families to follow Jesus. And Jesus commended them for that, as we are told in Matthew 19:29: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” Certainly that is consistent with the Apostle Paul’s implicit disparagement of marriage when he says that celibacy is preferable, but it is better to marry than to burn. The Gospels suggest that there were at times tensions between Jesus and his own family, which Brian talked about last week.

But I think that in the Gospels we can find models of and rules for family life. Let us start with Joseph, the human father-figure in the life of Jesus. We are told that when Joseph found that his wife-to-be Mary was pregnant with someone else’s child, his first thought was not to have her stoned as an adulteress, as sticklers for the Law would have done, but to divorce her quietly. But when an angel appeared and explained the situation, Joseph immediately did the right thing. Every account we have makes him a good father, beginning with carrying the infant Jesus away to Egypt when his life was threatened.

As I said earlier, Jesus presents us with certain problems. One of his most striking statements about family was this, found in Luke 14:26: “If any man come to Me and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.” I find theologians tying themselves into interpretive knots trying to reconcile that with family life. Yet we have glimpses of Jesus’s own tenderness toward not only his own mother Mary, but mothers of all kinds. The most reasonable interpretation of this passage is that Jesus was calling on us to make our first loyalty, even above loyalty to family, even beyond human love, loyalty to Truth. What he laid out in the Sermon the Mount, what we call the Beatitudes, encompasses those truths:

“‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

These are not the predominant values in the families of the patriarchs. Families in which these values are a way of life will ultimately prove a blessing to the world, even if they may not always be popular with everyone around them.

And here I think we Quakers have done some of our best work. In 1806 Thomas Clarkson, a priest in the Church of England who had worked extensively with Friends in the antislavery movement, published a substantial three-volume Portraiture of Quakerism. Clarkson had been deeply impressed by the Friends he encountered, and he wanted the world to understand them better. One of Clarkson’s conclusions was striking. He conceded that Quakers banned amusements that others saw as good clean fun, such as music and dancing and dramatics. But, he argued, Friends did not need them. “Domestic bliss” was, he had found, “Friends’ chief source of enjoyment.” Certainly even today a family that finds not just love and caring, but fun in each other without the distracting aid of electronic screens and hand-held devices will be a happy one. Some historians argue that some of the positive features of the modern family, such as equality of the partners and child-centeredness, were in large part pioneered by Quakers. It says something that the historic Quaker marriage vows were identical for husband and wife—nothing about the wife obeying her husband.

Certainly one can point to Quaker families in the past and today that were not models of domestic bliss. But failure always to live up to our ideals is no reason to dismiss them. A family in which we aspire to do justly, live humbly, and seek always to do to others as we would have them do unto us, like a world in which we do those things, will be a good place.

New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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