|Growing up I remember feeling confused when I heard the phrase, “family first.” I always thought to myself, “shouldn’t God come first?” After all, God created my family. According to my child-like logic, God should come first.
Today’s Gospel complicates that logic. Jesus says something potentially painful in the presence of his biological family by implying that they are not his real or only family. But he’s not denying his kin. Rather he’s expanding our notion of who belongs in the family of God: “those who hear the word of God and act upon it.”
This challenges all of us. Suddenly, family isn’t just my immediate family or even my extended family. It includes all believers. Even if we don’t enjoy a healthy relationship with our biological family, we know how we ought to behave towards a family member. Parents ought to provide unconditional love to their children. Siblings ought to love and support each other. I’m sure you, like me, fall short of this ideal with your families. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when we fail to extend the same love and compassion to our brothers and sisters in the Lord. If we fail to love our children (the unborn and the born, including victims of child trafficking and those held in detention centers) then how can we love the poor, the immigrant and the refugee? By expanding our concept of family, Jesus makes it far more difficult to place family first.
But I find hope in our first reading.
It’s telling that the Church pairs this Gospel reading about who belongs in our family with this passage from Ezra. The reading celebrates the construction of the second Temple, which was commissioned and paid for, not by the Jewish people, but by the Persian king Darius. Despite being a Gentile and non-believer, God acts through this foreign king to bring new hope and energy to Israel. The message implies that God’s concept of family far exceeds our own expectations. And given how frequently I fail to hear the word of God and act upon it, I can only hope that God places “family first.”