We are finished with Jesus’ use of fictive family. In coming posts, I will turn my attention to the post-Resurrection church. Before going there, I think it might be helpful to reset the stage.
We have looked at the nature of the Greco-Roman household. Patriarchy, patronage, honor, and status were driving influences in the culture. The Roman Empire and emerged from the Roman Republic in the generation prior to Jesus. Augustus Caesar, whose life overlapped with Jesus' life, was proclaimed as the son of god (Julius Caesar) who brought the good news of peace to the world through his domination and conquest of all foes. It is intriguing to note that the gospel of Mark, widely believed to be the earliest of the gospels begins with:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1
Life in the Empire was in considerable flux in the first century. Manumission had to be regulated and freedom for women was growing. Worship of the traditional Roman gods was waning and worship of the mystical goddesses of the East was spreading widely, especially among women, slaves, and people of lower status. The Eastern religions tended to be less class and status conscious. These developments tended to provoke a reactionary response from the Roman elite who saw worship of the Roman gods and traditional household life as essential for the stability of the Empire. Those who went against these values were seen as threats to the social order.
To unify all allegiance to himself, Augustus had begun to talk about the Empire as the household of Caesar with Caesar as the paterfamilias. All lines of patronage and honor culminated in him. This was part of his effort to wean the society away from the metaphor of a Republic with many competing leaders sharing power. The household metaphor for society was carried forward by succeeding Caesars as they sought to solidify their power.
Meanwhile, in the backwater region known as Palestine, the Jews had been under various forms of oppression for centuries. There were now two Jews living outside of Palestine for everyone Jew living in Palestine. Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as the common language. The oppression by the Romans, in contrast to the glorious vision they believed God had in store for them, was distressing. The idea of God as loving father began to take root in the Second Temple era. The reclusive Essenes developed a very strong fictive family environment that served to reinforce solidarity and exclude outsiders.
As we have seen, Jesus emphasized the fictive family metaphor in his teaching. In fact, he set up a dichotomy between our earthly biological family and our fictive family, with God as the paterfamilias, and he demanded the highest allegiance to this fictive family. But in Jesus' household code (Matthew 19-20) we see the ethic of the Greco-Roman and Near East worlds turned upside down. Jesus makes servanthood the organizing principle for the household. I often hear this described as "servant-leadership." I wonder if that still does not put too much focus on leadership. It may not be grammatically correct but I wonder if it would be better described as "leading-servantship."
What we also see from Jesus is a household that is turned outward. It seeks to bring back law-breaking sinners and law-keeping sinners. It goes into the highways and hedges to bring those into the household who are from outside the community.
But we also see something very important in the metaphor that Jesus uses to describe his relationship with God: Son to Father. “Son” communicates two important aspects of the relationship. First, while there was some emotional distance between father and son in the Greco-Roman world it was less so in the Near East. With images like those of the compassionate father, we see that Jesus portrays God as a Father of unsurpassed compassion. Second, when sending messages in these ancient cultures, the status of the person bringing the message communicated much about the significance of the message. A son would be expected to have the very heart and mind of his father in all business and legal matters. A son would carry the greatest authority and bring the greatest significance to the message being delivered (See Mark 12:1-11) The metaphor of Father and Son is powerful for communicating the nature of the relationship and the mission. We are adopted into the family where we have the same loving relationship with the Father as brothers and sisters in Christ, having our heart and mind conformed to the heart and mind of God. Then, just as Jesus was sent in mission, so are we sent in mission to exhibit the image God, to evidence the New Creation that is to come, and to go into the world “compelling” others to come in.
As we turn to the post-Resurrection story, we find the Church has a new challenge. To this point the message of God has come largely through the nation of Israel, which means it was spoken into a Hebrew speaking world with Near East cultural traditions. There was a tradition of teaching through metaphor and narrative in the Near East. By Jesus’ day, Greco-Roman influences had had an impact on the Jews but it was still a culture deeply rooted in Ancient Near East thinking and cultural patterns. As the Church moved out of Palestine and spread to the larger Greco-Roman world, it was necessary to translate the truth of the Old Testament and of Jesus' teaching into a culture with dissimilar ways of teaching and learning. The Greco-Roman world tended to be much more didactic. We tend to be more didactic in our culture as well, which is one of the reasons why we frequently find it so much easier to understand Paul (or think we do) than understanding Jesus. He communicates in patterns that are more similar.
Therefore, when we read the New Testament, we must keep in mind that we are frequently dealing with three cultural contexts. We are “listening in” on the early Church as it attempts to translate God’s truth from the Ancient Near Eastern context into the Greco-Roman context, keeping in mind that many of these contexts contained both Jews and Gentiles. The third culture that must be acknowledged is our own 21st Century cultural context and we must resist reading our culture back into the passage. First, we are to understand what the passage was about in its own context and then we ask how it applies in our own context. We turn now to the post-Resurrection use of fictive family and household in the Church.