Friday, August 28, 2015

Were the disciples deadbeat dads?

Having been raised by a single mother and a single grandmother in both Mexico and in the United States, I personally know that women can be breadwinners. But I also see how much one income, instead of the income of two or more adults, greatly affected our family. 
The Bad Jesus, pp. 201-203
Heroic Disciples or Deadbeat Dads?
And passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men’. And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him (Mk 1.16-20). 
In another instance, Jesus seems to make an equally outrageous demand:
Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go’. And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head’. Another of the disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father’. But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead’ (Mt. 8.18-22). 
Imagine if a group of twelve men today left their families to follow a man they just met or barely knew. What sorts of questions would arise? For starters, one might ask what happened to their families? How are these families supposed to make a living after being abandoned by their main or only breadwinners? Who will assume the burden of the burial that the scribe abandoned? Is it morally right for someone to abandon a family in the first place? 
Once one begins to think more seriously about what Jesus wanted the disciples to do, it becomes very clear to anyone who studies basic economics that abandonment would impoverish the corresponding families almost immediately. If that family has infants, then those infants may be left without much food. Any wives are now left more vulnerable. 
Any hired servants may go unpaid. There was seemingly no notice given to every affected family by these disciples, but the anxiety of such an abandonment is hardly ever the subject of any compassion or sympathy by New Testament scholarship. These disciples are never labeled as deadbeat dads, cruel or irresponsible.

The flaws in Hector's analysis are legion:

i) Did Avalos abandon his mother when he studied at Harvard for several years? Was she his roommate in the dorm?

ii) There's a general difference between a parent who deserts growing kids and a grown child who leaves home. As a rule, we don't consider it abandonment when a grown child leaves home. Indeed, there's often a cultural expectation that when kids reach adulthood, they ought to strike out on their own. They weren't supporting their parents–their parents were supporting them. In case their parents need financial support, that involves a grown child who's in a position to send money home because he's financially independent. Because he works outside the home. 

iii) There's nothing in Hector's two prooftexts to indicate the disciples in question were husbands or fathers. 

iv) Before the advent of modern contraception, couples usually had large families. Multiple sons and daughters. Indeed, providing for all of them could be a financial burden. You also had extended families.

Losing one or two sons to the mission field wouldn't ordinarily mean the parents had no other children to fall back on to help with the family business. There were lots of helping hands. 

v) Peter, for one, took his wife along with him when he was on the mission field (1 Cor 9:5). He didn't leave her behind. 

vi) Avalos ignores a key passage in which Jesus commands filial provision for needy parents (Mt 15). 

Likewise, a childless widow would be indigent, which is why Jesus revives the only son of a widow (Lk 7:11-17).

It's not as if Jesus has a policy of leaving needy wives and parents in the lurch.

vii) Mk 1:16-20 isn't a general command to Christian men. It was a timebound command during the life and public ministry of Christ, involving only 12 men. 

viii) Yes, there's a sense in which Mt 8:21-22 is outrageous. It sounds harsh to modern ears, and it would sound even harsher to ancient Jewish ears. The shock value is intentional.

In addition, it reflects the self-importance of Jesus. A demand like that either means he's suffers from delusions of grandeur or else he's God. 

ix) It's unlikely that the man's request is realistic. If his father had just died, he wouldn't be out and about with Jesus. He'd be at home making funeral arrangements. And if his father were dying, he'd be by his bedside, holding vigil–or else he'd ask Jesus to heal his ailing father. So the request is an excuse to procrastinate. 

As for Christ's reply, remember that Jesus often resorts to hyperbole. It's naive to take his reply at face value. It seems doubtful that Jesus is really forbidding him from attending his father's funeral. Rather, it's turning the man's mock piety back on him.


  1. I don't agree with ix. There is no reason to think the situation is more complex than the simple reading. Whether or not his father was deceased, he was amongst "the dead." "Leave the dead to bury their own dead" is about the most stone-cold serious response Jesus could have given.

    1. I take Jesus' statement to mean, "Let the spiritually dead bury their own physical dead." Also, there's no apriori reason to think that the son was an only son who alone could take care of and bury his father. Also, as Steve pointed out Jesus affirmed the duty of children to take care of their aging parents when He condemned the use of the Corban rule as an excuse.

      Also, leaving one's parent(s) is sometimes necessitated by force. For example, a son who converts out of Islam to Christianity may have to flee to keep from being killed by one's parents and relatives. In that sense, he "abandoned" his family (so to speak) out of necessity. He was forced to confront the choice of either being faithful to Christ or to his family, he chose Christ as Christ commanded and on account of Christ's surpassing/greater worthy.

      Notice that Jesus statement "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" [as if Mary wasn't His mother] is not inconsistent with Jesus also telling John "behold your mother" [i.e. Jesus nevertheless considered his earthly mother's welfare after his death]. Compare Matt. 12:46-50 with John 19:25-27.

    2. You need to take into account Jewish burial practices which would take up to a year, he was seriously stalling Jesus

  2. It's interesting that Jesus didn't say, "Let the dead bury himself." Since, as Steve pointed out, Jews back then lived communally and with the preference of more than one child.

  3. I'm not sure what the evidence is for this, but one theory is that most of the disciples were very young, some of them even in their teens. John, almost certainly, given how long he lived. Peter was probably a bit older, since he was married. Still, most of them may have not been married at that time.

    It seems that Peter continued to have access to a fishing boat, because Jesus seemed at various times to have it at his disposal, and Peter was able to go fishing right away after the crucifixion and resurrection.

    An even more fascinating point is that harmonizing John with the synoptics gives us the rather surprising fact that Jesus actually had been with several of the disciples for several months in Judea, including a Passover celebration in Jerusalem, prior to the famous "follow me and I will make you fishers of men" scene in Galilee. At least two of the disciples, though from the north (the Galilee) were already in Judea as disciples of John the Baptist before beginning to follow Jesus. Peter, Andrew, James, and John apparently spent time with Jesus at Cana, then down to Judea, then in a Judean baptizing ministry, before coming back to Galilee and returning to fishing. Moreover, the fact that John records far more events in Judea than the synoptics raises the possibility that Jesus sometimes went to Jerusalem without all of the twelve. All of this gives a much more fluid picture of the relationship of Jesus to his disciples than the view we were raised with in Sunday School, which in turn helps to answer the question, "How did Peter support his wife, mother-in-law, and any children he had?"

  4. "I'm not sure what the evidence is for this, but one theory is that most of the disciples were very young, some of them even in their teens."

    I imagine the same sort of evidence that allows us to infer Jesus practiced carpentry. I recall Keener giving a lecture a ETS some years ago in which he stated that the disciples would have been teenagers because it was customary for teachers in that social milieu to take on disciples who were young. From this I also imagine it would probably have been remarked on by the Gospel authors (especially Mark?) had the disciples been of a particularly unusual age for a Jewish disciple-master relation.