Just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, Jesus throws a curve. A man came to Jesus, nearly convinced that he was on the right track to glory. But wanting to settle that nagging doubt that maybe there was something more, he ask Jesus, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt 19:16) Jesus encourages him to reflect on what he was doing, which commandments he was keeping. The man replied that he had kept them all, but wonders if there was something that he still lacked. Jesus said, “Yeah, there is. You need to get rid of the one thing that’s more important than following Me—your wealth.”
Isn’t that the way it is? We think we’re doing pretty good, and then Jesus seems to set the bar a little higher. In this story, it’s the man’s wealth that has created a stumbling block. But the issue isn’t the wealth, it’s the man’s devotion to it. The same could be said for any number of things. Jesus frequently challenged the religious leaders and their devotion to the Law. Again, the problem wasn’t the Law, but the prioritization of the Law over mercy and justice—things that Jesus exemplifies and calls His followers to enact.
Even families and homes are called into question. In Matthew 8:18-22, Jesus shares two troublesome thoughts. One, when a scribe offers to follow Jesus, Jesus reminds him that faithfulness is a step away from the security of a home: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Then, to the disciple who seems to place his family obligations before his devotion to Jesus, Jesus pushes back: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” Again, Jesus is not saying that hearth and home or familial obligations are meaningless. He’s saying that as important as they may be, there is something that’s more important.
Family may be the most problematic of these potentially conflicting priorities. There is a rich heritage presented to us from the scripture regarding the care we are to have for our families. It’s woven into the Decalogue, the sixth of the Ten Commandments is to honor our parents. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul instructs Timothy about the care for widows in the church. He says that if a widow has family, then the family has an obligation to see that her needs are met. “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives,” he says in verse 8, “and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” In Psalm 127, Solomon offers a tribute to children: “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”
Then Jesus goes and upsets the apple cart. In Matthew 10, as Jesus sends out the Twelve as apostles to witness to the coming kingdom, He reminds them that to follow the Messiah is to step into the tension between the powers and patterns of the world, and the new thing that the Lord of Heaven is creating. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
So how do we work out the apparent dissonance between these two seemingly conflicted Biblical ideas—that we should care for our families on the one hand, and that we should love Jesus more than them on the other? If we believe that the Bible, as the inspired word of God, is internally consistent and doesn’t contradict itself, then both ideas are true and right. But if we honor what Jesus tells us above all else, then we have to start with the way He prioritizes things—we love Jesus first, and all else second. Even the things that other parts of scripture affirm as important and valuable. Jesus has to come first.
At the end of John’s gospel, there’s this wonderful account of reconciliation between Jesus and Peter. Remember, Peter had denied Jesus three times prior to Jesus’s death on the cross, and now the resurrected Jesus is restoring their fractured relationship. There, on the shore of Galilee, as they finish up their breakfast, Jesus wants to get to the heart of Peter’s devotion. He asks Peter three times—perhaps one for each of the denials in the courtyard of the High Priest—if Peter loves Him. Each time, the question is a little different—Jesus uses different words for love, and in the first question, Jesus qualifies the love. He asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Not just “Do you love me?” but “Do you love me more than these?”
There’s a lot of speculation about what Jesus might have been referring to here—what are the “these” in “more than these?” Is Jesus gesturing to the other disciples, asking Peter if he loves Jesus more than he loves the others gathered around the campfire? Is He asking if the quality and quantity of Peter’s love is superior to the others—wondering if Peter’s devotion is greater than John’s or James’s? They’re on the shore among all the fishing tackle, representing Peter’s occupation. Does Jesus wave toward the boats and nets, asking if Peter loves Him more than his old life? The question isn’t clear, unless we change our focus. Instead of wondering about what the “these” might be, we should emphasize another part of the question. Maybe Jesus is just asking, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more?”
We’re going to have a long list of things that are important to us. And outside of the stuff that the scripture explicitly tells us to reject—the blatantly sinful and evil—we may have some difficulty in keeping our priorities straight. Material wealth, religious observance, family and home—none of these things is inherently wrong. They all can be a part of a whole and balanced life. Because they aren’t in and of themselves bad, we might be misled into thinking that we can embrace them without reservation. But Jesus is asking us the same question He asked Peter, “Christian, do you love me more than these?” Will you prioritize Me over all else? Will you follow Me even at the cost of your life? This is the expectation Jesus has for His followers. Nothing less.
The wonderful thing is that if we commit wholly to Jesus, without reservation and without conflicted priorities, we are promised life in abundance. As the rich man who had asked Jesus about eternal life leaves the scene—grief-stricken because Jesus had asked him to surrender the one thing he felt he could not—the disciples are confused. If this man who was so devoted to faithfully observing the Law could not be saved, then who can be? Jesus tells them that being a faithful disciple is the key. Prioritizing Jesus above all else is the key. He says, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” My feeling is that Jesus isn’t really talking about getting a hundred houses for giving up one, or a hundred families in exchange for the one left behind. He’s saying that what you have, when you’ve prioritized rightly, becomes so much richer than you could imagine. Your relationships are better, more whole, more balanced. Your capacity to care for your family increases a hundredfold when Jesus comes first. Life itself, when offered freely to Jesus, is regained in abundance. All we need to do is follow Jesus first.