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God vs. family

In our RCIA session this morning we were talking about this morning’s first reading, from Deuteronomy 26:4-10, where the Israelites are commanded by Moses to offer their firstfruits to the Lord as an offering in thanksgiving for all He had done.  The discussion made its way to the fact that “firstfruits” is also saying “the best of what you have” – i.e. that we give to God our best, not giving Him something inferior and keeping the best for ourselves.  From there it made its way to the point that we must not put anything – or anyone – before God.  One of our catechumen posed the concerned question (paraphrased), “does that mean we have to put God before our own family?”  I don’t think I did a sufficient job with the answer then but I’d like another crack at it here.

In short, the answer is “yes”.  But, of course, there is far more to the answer than just one word.  The short answer comes from the very first Commandment:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  You shall have no other gods before me. (Deut  5:6-7)

The word “gods” here means not only spiritual creatures, entities in ancient myths or superstitions.  It is well understood to extend to any thing or person one ahead of God in priority.  So yes, one must always put God before all else, even one’s own family.  This answer is both direct and rather shocking to those who have lived life centered around their family.  It can seem an incredibly large drop to the family from first place to second.  It can, further, seem an almost impossible request – perhaps even a devaluing of the family and an elevation of God to a position in contention with the family.  The simple answer becomes quickly not so simple.

The longer, harder-at-the-start, answer is that the question is a false dichotomy.  “How’s that?” you say.  The question proposes an either-or situation when, in fact, none exists.  Even in the case of the mother of the seven martyred brothers in 2 Maccabees 7 (if you do not know the story, it is an excellent one to read to illustrate my point) the separation between love of God and love of family is shown to be a false one.

But how is that so?  Let us first start with a short reflection:  if God is One and God is Love, then in the end there is truly only one Love of which we partake and to which we can aspire.  What does that mean in this case?  Look deeply into the question and you will find that to love your God is to love your neighbor, to love your family and to truly love your family is to love God.  So there is no true act of love for God which would ever be an act against love for one’s family.

The difficulty, if I may make the conjecture, is that we often project from the love we know – love of friends, love of family – onto the love we hope to know – the love of God, the love who is God.  This is another area where Christianity turns our process upside down.  We are asked, instead of deriving God-love from familial-love to come to a new understanding of familial love by starting at the true love of God.  It is in this complete agape – self-giving – love that we find the complete unity of love of God and love of family.  They are, indeed, the same if we allow ourselves to start with God.

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