There are, to be sure, family values on display in the Bible, but they’re probably not the ones we would naturally expect. We might in fact be taken aback when we see just how harsh, blunt, and demanding are most Biblical accounts of family relations. We tend to be rather sentimental when it comes to families (especially this time of year), and there’s nothing wrong with warm family feelings. But the Scriptural attitude toward families isn’t sentimental; it’s theological and mission-focused.
A prime example of this unique Biblical perspective is a passage from the first book of Samuel. We hear of Hannah, a devout Israelite woman who, to her deep chagrin and embarrassment, was not able to bear children. Every year, she went to the temple at Shiloh to pray for the grace of pregnancy. Once, she was praying with such passion and with so many tears that Eli the priest assumed that she was drunk and was making a shameful display. Displaying less than exemplary pastoral sensitivity, he said, “how long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine!” Can you imagine a more miserable scenario for Hannah? But she stood her ground, protesting, “No, my Lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” Then she told Eli precisely how she had been entreating the Lord: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant…but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death.” A nazarite was an ancient Israelite version of a monk, a person completely dedicated to God.
We then hear that the Lord heard Hannah’s prayer and in due time she conceived and bore a son, whom she named “Samuel,” which means, “asked of the Lord.” When the child was weaned, his mother fulfilled her vow and brought him to the temple. She gave Samuel to Eli and told the priest to raise the child in the temple as a man of God. We can only begin to conceive the anguish Hannah must have felt as she offered back to Yahweh the child whom she had begged from the Lord with such intensity. In time, of course, Samuel grew to be one of the most powerful and important prophets in Israel, the one who anointed both Saul and David and set thereby the history of salvation in a decisively new direction.
With that story in mind, we turn to the well-known passage which is the Gospel reading, in Cycle C, for the feast of the Holy Family. After their visit to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph, along with a bevy of their family and friends, were heading home to Nazareth. They presumed that the child Jesus was somewhere among his relatives in this caravan. Instead, he was in the temple of the Lord, conversing the elders and masters of the law. Distraught, Mary and Joseph spent three days looking for him. Any parent who has ever searched for a lost child knows the anguish they must have felt. Can you imagine what it was like as they tried to sleep at night, spinning out the worst scenarios in their minds? When they finally find him, they, with understandable exasperation, upbraid him: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” But Jesus responds with a kind of devastating laconicism: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Both stories convey a truth that runs sharply counter to our sensibilities, namely, that even the most powerful familial emotions and sentiments must, in the end, give way to mission. Though they felt an enormous pull in the opposite direction, both Hannah and Mary let their sons go, allowing them to find their vocation in the temple, which is to say, in the space of God. Legitimate sentiment devolves into sentimentality precisely when it comes to supersede the call of God. Both narratives disclose that, on a Biblical reading, the family is, above all, the forum in which both parents and children are able to discern their missions. It is perfectly good, of course, if deep bonds and rich emotions are cultivated within the family, but those relationships and passions must cede to something that is more fundamental, more enduring, more spiritually focused.
This Biblical prioritization of values helps us to see, in fact, what typically goes wrong with families. When something other than mission is dominant—a son’s athletic achievement, a daughter’s success at university, a child’s emotional reliance on her parents, etc.—family relationships actually become strained. The paradox is this: precisely in the measure that everyone in the family focuses on God’s call for one another the family becomes more loving and peaceful. John Paul II admirably summed up what I’ve been driving at when he spoke of the family as an “ecclesiola” (a little church). At its best, he implies, the family is a place where God is worshiped and where the discernment of God’s mission is of paramount importance.
I know it seems strange to say, but the most loving thing that family members can do is to let each other go—for God’s service.