Today's gospel reading (Matthew 10:37-42) starts with one of those really challenging passages that priests and deacons must dread having to preach on. Actually, Matthew's version is not nearly as tough as the parallel in Luke, who requires us to go so far as to hate father and mother, spouse and children, brother and sister, and even our own life, if we want to be counted as true disciples. Matthew just says we mustn't prefer them to Him. Still ... where is Jesus coming from with this? It's pretty strong stuff.
Earliest monastic tradition certainly took it seriously. Monks and nuns were meant to renounce their family relationships along with their property and position. Why, what's the point? I mean, I (with the agreement of my spiritual director) explicitly refuse to do that, as a hermit, among other reasons because family relationships go both ways. I can't deprive myself of my family without depriving my family of me, and I don't feel that I have the right to do that. I honor my father and mother, sisters and brothers, nephews and nieces, and I'm not about to cut myself off from them. Granted, I live at least an hour away from them all, and even before the pandemic, we never got together more than a few times a year. Still, the principle remains -- but what is the principle, then, behind the ancient monastic tradition?
There's something in John Cassian's Conferences of the Desert Fathers (late 4th-early 5th century, about 100 years before St. Benedict and a major influence on his thought and Rule). He and his fellow monk Germanus, who have travelled from their home monastery in Palestine to learn from the famous desert fathers in Egypt, start to think that maybe they should return to live with their families. They think, with their families' support they could devote themselves to spiritual study and holy living, and in return they would surely be a good influence on their relatives.... Fortunately, they have grown enough in humility and wisdom by then to run their idea by one of the elders, who shoots it down. Why would their families want to support them as idle monks, and what makes them think their families would be grateful for their wise teaching? I think there is something about the way families and land are connected in agrarian economies (just about every economy, ever, except our modern post-industrial ones) that means family ties come along with real, concrete rights and responsibilities that might not be obvious in our modern capitalist system.
OK, then, but there is still, I think, an important value in today's gospel reading, and it has to do with what we call "tough love." It has to do with a homily I heard about 30 years ago, preached by the late Cardinal Hickey. The parish church was packed with mostly Central American war refugees, among whom domestic violence was epidemic. Cardinal Hickey read his homily in Spanish, and it was obvious that he must have spent hours and hours rehearsing. It was obvious that he really cared about what he was saying, and what he said was this: "you men, never for one minute think that because you are married in the Church, the Church is going to tell your wives to stay with you if you beat them. If you beat your wives, sacrament or no, the Church is going to tell them to leave you!" Disgracefully, that has not been the Church's universal message. But it is the message of today's gospel.
Today's gospel says, you must do the right thing, choose God, even if it means breaking the most intimate family ties. Even if it means pressing charges against your (temporarily, if sincerely) contrite husband or lover for beating you or your children. Even if it means evicting and/or testifying against your own beloved child for dealing drugs. Even if it means participating in having your sister or brother involuntarily committed to a psych ward when they're having a psychotic episode and, lacking insight as a symptom of the illness itself, rage against you for locking them up. Or just tolerating a terrible two-year-old's tantrums without letting yourself be manipulated by them.
You know, there is only one God, and my God is your God, too, and also the God of the abuser and the drug addict, and of every one of us whose thinking and behavior is at times slightly or massively distorted, manipulative, dishonest, wrong, unacceptable. It is not up to me to try to figure out what is the best thing I can do for you. It is up to me to maintain my own prayer life and my own integrity, to examine my own conscience frequently and rigorously, and to make amends whenever I start to go wrong. If I do that, if I do what God leads me to do, it cannot possibly be good for me and bad for you. We have one God, who loves me and you and all of us together, equally. Some choices may seem selfish to us, we may feel guilty for saying "no" or walking away from someone close to us, but if I'm really following God, He cannot possibly lead me to take care of myself at your expense.
Tough love is not just self-love, it's a more effective way to love its object. Enabling, the opposite of tough love, is crippling. We, and those we sometimes have to be very brave to say "no" to, cannot grow strong and healthy without some struggle on our own behalf. Letting someone get away with bad behavior, even rewarding bad behavior, prevents the person behaving badly from the harder work of confronting their own demons and growing into goodness. Nor does tough love guarantee healing and redemption, but that's not my job. God loves you, and God loves your manipulative child or spouse, but you are not your relative's God. You, I, must learn to "listen with the ear of the heart," and then trust in God to take care of us and of one another, in His own way.
I think that this is what Jesus meant -- or at least, it's one way of understanding His hard statements in Matthew, and even harder in Luke, about placing God before family. We have to put God, and that still, small voice with which He speaks to us in the depth of our conscience, ahead of absolutely everything and everyone else. It's for our good and for our loved ones' good, too, because the God who speaks lovingly to my heart loves them just as much. We don't have competing Gods, or duelling guardian angels ... we have one God. Trust!