The Holidays and Jesus: Redeeming Our Inner Griswold

by Scott Sauls, Christ Presbyterian Church 

From the beginning, the Bible presents family as a gift from God. When God creates Eve and gives her to Adam, Adam poetically exclaims that she is “flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones.” Even after the tragic, history-altering event with the forbidden fruit, and in spite of the curse that fell on all relationships as a result, family remains central to God’s plan for flourishing societies and persons.

As it was in the beginning, so it still remains: It is not good to be alone (Genesis 2:18). And as the poet John Donne famously said:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

As those created in the image of a Triune God who is both Three and One, we are helplessly relational creatures. We need connection or we will languish. We need connection or we will wither away in sorrow.

God created the nuclear family a key way to address this universal human need. Scripture reminds us that children are a heritage from the LORD and heirs of God’s kingdom, and are to honor their parents, which is the first command with a promise. Family is the chief metaphor God uses to communicate how he wants to relate to us, and us to him. He is our Father and we are his children. He hovers over us like a protective mother hen. He, Jesus is our Elder Brother who is not ashamed of us (Hebrews 2:10-11).

And yet, family is also a source of many of our deepest wounds. Therapists begin counseling with probing questions about the patient’s family of origin relationships. Why? Because pain, loss, anger, alienation, codependency and other forms of dysfunction are conceived and cultivated within families. Resentments fester, develop, and then solidify when issues aren’t addressed.

In the holiday classic, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the main character, Clark Griswold, is alarmed when his boisterous Cousin Eddie arrives unannounced for the holidays. In one scene, Clark’s disdain for this lovable yet greatly disheveled, aimless train wreck of a man comes out this way:

“Eddie, can I refill your eggnog for you? Get you something to eat? Drive you out to the middle of nowhere and leave you for dead?”

Why is this line so funny? It’s funny because it’s so relatable—this desire to experience relief, at whatever the cost—from unwanted family drama and those responsible for it.

Even Jesus was impacted by dysfunctional family dynamics. After he began his public ministry and large crowds came from all over to hear his teaching, his family wanted to seize him because they thought he was out of his mind. Once when he was teaching his disciples, someone came in and said that his mother and brothers were looking for him. To this he replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” He would also say the following to his disciples:

“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:51-53).”

Does Jesus oppose the nuclear family? Absolutely not! Rather than distancing us from our nuclear families, Jesus presses us toward family—toward fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers and in-laws—as conduits and ambassadors of his love and care. And yet, Jesus is saying that when the nuclear family falls out of sync with the beliefs, priorities, and ethics of the family of God, there are going to be issues and tensions. But through the issues and tensions, Jesus aims to work in and through his disciples for the redeeming of fractured families, and for the love of dysfunctional kin.

For Jesus to openly declare, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” would have been unheard of in ancient Jerusalem. In those days and times, family was everything—especially if, like Jesus, you happened to be the oldest son. The oldest son was responsible for preserving the family name to the next generation, as well as protecting and providing for the entire family…including the family’s reputation.

What Jesus’ apparent snub of his mother and brothers does for us, however, is remind us that even for a Perfect Son like him, the nuclear family is a broken institution. As actress Mariel Hemingway once said, “Everybody comes from pain and a certain amount of dysfunction.” This is even true of Jesus.

Dysfunction happens inside families in many ways. Perhaps for Jesus’ family, it was the embarrassment of having their son, also an untrained rabbi and carpenter and sometimes homeless man, publicly put himself forth as the hope of the universe and only way to find peace with God. What’s more, Jesus got up in the face of religious leaders, the pillars of Jewish society, and said that prostitutes and crooks were entering God’s kingdom faster than they were (Matthew 21:31).
So there was that.

Can you imagine the humiliation if this was your brother…or even worse, your boy?

But if our sense of security and source of identity becomes tied up in the reputation or behavior of a family member, heartache and alienation will surely find us along the way. It never fails. And yet, when our anxiety escalates and our anger gets hot over a family member, it presents an opportunity to examine our own hearts.

Where is it, truly, that we seek our identity and happiness and value? If it’s our families, then our families will wreck us and we will wreck our families.

Aim first at Jesus and you will get stronger family thrown in; aim first at stronger family and you will get neither.

I have witnessed the joy of many weddings and also the tragic unraveling of marriages. Because of my role as a minister, I am given a front row seat in the most joyful and sorrowful moments in couples’ lives. It is in the sorrowful moments, the ones in which romantic love becomes platonic, and then hostile, and then irreconcilable, that molehills turn into mountains. The innocent mistakes of one spouse are labeled by the other as intentional; forgotten tasks as uncaring; fatigue as laziness; legitimate frustration as rage; constructive criticism as rejection; apologies as manipulation; and forgiveness as condescension.

But when motives are questioned and the benefit of the doubt is no longer given, when a husband or wife is on a hair trigger with the other, when humble apologies and kindhearted grace and forgiveness cease to be a consideration in marriage, there’s usually something deeper going on. It usually means that one or both spouses are demanding that the other be a savior, a true north, an ultimate source of joy, fulfillment, and meaning.

But as millions have discovered, it’s always a disaster when one sinner demands that another sinner be their Jesus. For only Jesus will never let his Bride down. Only Jesus will never fail or disappoint.

Similar sorrows emerge when children grow up with needy parents. Parenting out of neediness instead of love smothers children with the parents’ need to be needed. Fearing that they will lose their children’s affection, needy parents grasp for control. When control is lost, some will then punish verbally and even physically.

I once heard a counselor say that parents abuse their children not because they love their children too little, but because they love them too much. Of course this was merely a play on words, but you get the point. If our “love” escalates into a need for or demand that our children think, believe, achieve, or behave in a certain way, and then they fall short of our needs and demands, it is only a matter of time before we melt down and punish.

This is what you call reversing the flow of the umbilical cord: Parents demanding that their children be their source of life; their nourishment; their ultimate meaning in the universe…their Jesus. It always ends in sorrow. Just as in marriage, we must not place a burden on our children to provide for us the things that only God can.

And yet, for those of us who have tasted family dysfunction or have even caused the dysfunction, there is greater grace that God holds out to us. His mercies are new every day, and his offer to be our true Husband, Father, Brother and Savior always stands.

What’s more, if we have ears to hear and hearts to receive, God helps us feel less alone with the wounds inflicted by those who fail to love us. Even if we parent with grace and love, our children may grow disrespectful and unresponsive or go completely astray. And if this happens, we have a God who understands. He is the Perfect Father of children who chronically ungrateful for and unreceptive to his love.

And if we carry Mom or Dad wounds or both, God understands that, too. Jesus is the Perfect Son who was misunderstood and called a lunatic by his own mother (Mark 3:21). And, horror of horrors, he was the Perfect Son who was forsaken by his Perfect Father—all so we, the prodigal sons and daughters who have been united with him by faith, would never be forsaken.

And, when marriage lets us down—when we are lonely because of an unfulfilled longing to be married or lonely inside a marriage—Jesus is the man who lived single and who died alone, and yet is also the Perfect Husband who will never forsake his chronically adulterous, entitled, distant, unmoved…and yet never ceasing to be his beloved…Bride.

In every family heartache, we have One who is able to sympathize with our weakness, because has been tested in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

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