Biblical Teaching on Marriage and Family—A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

It is not difficult to demonstrate that most of our modern problems center around marriage, sexuality, and the family. In our thinking and our behavior in these three fundamental areas, we have departed significantly from the teachings of God and from common sense.

Today’s Feast of the Holy Family provides a rich tapestry of Scripture readings and presents us with an opportunity to reflect. Many of these teachings are not politically correct, but for that I make no apology. They remain God’s teachings and it is hard to argue that modern notions of sexuality, marriage and family have produced anything short of catastrophe. And, as is often the case, it is children who suffer the most.

Any look at statistics reveals facts and trends that are not merely alarming but downright astonishing, especially given how suddenly they have occurred. More than 40% of children in this country today are raised in homes without both parents. The numbers are even lower within minority communities.

In 1961, the year I was born, 80% of black children were raised in a two-parent family; today that number is 20%. And for whatever assertions may be made regarding ongoing poverty, the poverty rate overall and in the black community is substantially lower today than it was in 1961. Even with far greater pressures, black families used to stay together and work through their difficulties. Today, despite far greater affluence, this is no longer the case. White families and other ethnic/racial groups may have numbers that are slightly less shocking, but when we factor in age and generational differences, the numbers are not that far apart across the races/ethnicities.

The two-parent, heterosexual family is becoming an endangered species. Many grave consequences have resulted from this decline: lower student test scores and graduation rates; higher rates of divorce, cohabitation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, declared homosexual inclination, and juvenile delinquency. Clearly, as the model of the stable, faithful heterosexual marriage becomes rarer, young people become less and less likely to be able to establish strong families of their own.

Despite the claims that this disordered state of affairs is just fine and that “alternative families” are just as good as traditional ones, most people know that this is a lie. It’s just common sense that the best for any child is to be raised in what nature and nature’s God has set forth as the proper environment: a father and a mother, a male and female, in a stable, committed, lasting marriage. In this safe environment of trust, children learn the male and female genius of being human. A mother alone or a father alone or two fathers or two mothers or any other combination is far less than ideal; to intentionally subject children to this is an injustice to them.

Yet such departures from God’s plan for marriage and family are increasingly the norm today. There is much about which to pray and reflect on this Feast of the Holy Family.

Having reviewed in a general way the problems regarding sexuality and family life today, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of today’s readings and see five basic teachings or themes.

Honor The opening of the first reading says, God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sirach 3:2). The reading goes on to state the blessings that come from this honor and obedience.

Yet, in modern culture, honor directed toward parents and elders has increasingly disappeared. The steady diet of most children, whether through television, music, or other media, leads them to think that they are the smart ones while adults are clueless and out-of-touch. And when fathers are even present, they are often depicted as buffoons.

When I was a child, my father forbade us to watch The Flintstones. He said that he would not allow his children to watch a cartoon that presented adults as stupid because this would discourage respect for elders. He was right. Of course, The Flintstones is pretty mild in its depiction of adults compared to what is common today.

God teaches and commands children to honor their father and their mother. Without respect and honor, there can be no teaching or handing on of wisdom from previous generations. The lack of honor and respect for parents, elders, and authority figures in our culture goes a long way to explain why we are repeating foolish mistakes long since discarded by our forebears.

While previous generations of Christians were by no means sinless, it is evident that we are moving rapidly backwards; the folly and sinfulness of the pagan world described by St. Paul in Romans Chapter 1 have reemerged on a wide scale. Our folly is even worse, though, because unlike the pagans of old, we have access to the gospel and our culture has emerged from the Judeo-Christian wisdom. But in a kind of adolescent rebellion, we have collectively cast off the respect and honor that is due our elders as well as the traditions and wisdom that they and the Church can offer us.

We must restore honor to our parents, elders, and lawful authority (e.g., the Church) if we want to see our families and culture strong again. Parents and those in lawful authority must also learn to teach and act as those worthy of commanding respect.

Hierarchy – Although it is currently politically incorrect, the Lord through Scripture teaches that the family must be hierarchically ordered, with the father and husband as its head.

Today’s text from Colossians says clearly,

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:19-21).

Headship is required of every group. A body with two heads is freakish, and a body with no head is dead. It is the same for organizations and groups. Even in consultative bodies, headship is required. God sets a husband and father as head of the household, the domestic church. This is consistently taught in scripture (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1, inter al).

The authority a husband and father has is for service, not domination. He exercises it among those of equal dignity before God, but he has this authority and it ought to be acknowledged and observed. He is not to be bitter toward his wife or lord it over her, but he must be willing, with love, to manifest headship in his household. (I have written more on this topic here: A Unpopular Teaching on Marriage.)

Many today have set this teaching aside, and the result is that many marriages resemble more an ongoing power struggle than a loving, cohesive unit. It is not necessary or even wise for a husband to micromanage everything in his household; he does well to keep deep communion with his wife and often defer to her judgment. However, there are some matters that require a final decision-maker, someone to whom everyone turns for direction and for a final decision. Scripture assigns this role to the husband and father.

Scripture says, Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:20). God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sir 3:2). While we have already commented on these verses in terms of respect and honor, we ought to note them here in terms of hierarchy. Children are to respect the hierarchy of the family. They are not on par with their parents and should not act as if they are.

When I was growing up, my Father made sure to confirm my mother’s authority over us children; he would not tolerate us being disobedient or disrespectful toward her. A good husband and father is careful to do this. Even when we were adults, my father would not allow us to speak ill of our mother or behave disrespectfully toward her.

Thus, while all the members of the family have equal dignity before God, not all have the same role. Hierarchy is important in the family for good order and teaching. God sets it forth and it ought to be observed carefully.

Helpful virtues – The first part of the second reading today from Colossians 3 provides a veritable encyclopedia of virtues to cultivate.

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another… put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts…And be thankful (Col 3:12-15).

When I am preparing couples for marriage, I spend an entire session talking about this passage. All the virtues here are essential for good family life.

Notice how many of the virtues emphasize compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Families are composed of sinful human beings who have issues and struggles. Day-to-day life, too, can be difficult, causing strain on marriage and family. How essential, then, to develop these virtues!

Every now and again people come to me for advice in preparing for Confession; I often refer them to this very passage. I ask them to read Colossians 3 and assure them that if they read it carefully, they’ll have plenty to confess before they’re halfway through!

So many stresses and strains could be either avoided, endured, or handle charitably if the virtues of Colossians 3 would only be cultivated.

Holy teaching – The text from Colossians goes on to say, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Col 3:16).

Nothing can be more essential in having a godly and holy family than having godly and holy teaching.

With rare exception, we have utterly failed in this regard. There is nothing more important than instruction for eternal life. Yet in how many families is this instruction seldom or never given?

If a child is failing math or some other subject in school, most parents react with alarm, realizing that their child’s future may be at stake. They will often spend money to secure tutors and other help. If their child knows little or nothing about God, about why they were made, about the purpose of their life, though, who cares?

Parents put bumper stickers on their car boasting that their child is on the honor roll but have little interest in whether he or she can recite the Hail Mary or the Glory Be or knows the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. Where’s the bumper sticker that says, “My child knows the Lord!” or “My child is smart enough to pray!”

Parents will spend tens of thousands of dollars so their child can get a college degree, a career, a car, a house. Yet do they even inquire as to whether their child attends Mass or is living anything close to a Christian moral life?

This is a tragic situation: the ladder of “success” is leaning up against the wrong wall. Great effort is expended on things that pass away and almost none on things that will last forever, come Heaven or Hell.

Scripture is clear: the home must be a place where godly wisdom is taught, lived, modeled, and proclaimed. Parents should read their children Bible stories every day. Children must be taught God’s law and how to walk in the holy fear and reverence of Him. Family members should not only teach one another; they must admonish as well, summoning back to what is right and true.

Parents are the principal educators of children in the ways of faith. While much is rightly said about the dearth of teaching coming from the pulpit, ten minutes a week is not going to accomplish what is necessary or called for in a text like this. Even if a particular parish lacks a good preacher, that is no excuse for failing to teach one’s children. There’s nothing to prevent parents from carefully studying the catechism and teaching their children from it or reading them stories from a children’s Bible every day and teaching them God’s Word. Holy teaching should be the hallmark of every family.

Heroic sacrifice – In this matter we look to St. Joseph in today’s Gospel reading. Through an angel, God instructs Joseph to protect his wife and child by taking them to Egypt immediately, for King Herod seeks to kill the child.

How many fathers, indeed parents in general, struggle to get their priorities right? Too often career eclipses their vocation. For many fathers, their work takes priority over their role as husband/father. While the two are not directly opposed, there are times when the focus on career can to damage the capacity to be a good husband and father.

What Joseph has to do in going to Egypt will clearly have an impact on his career and his agenda. Scripture speaks of him as a tekton, which many think means “carpenter,” but it is more literally translated as “builder.” Joseph probably worked in the building trades. Going to Egypt in the middle if the night will certainly hurt his business. In addition, he would likely have preferred to return home than to go to a foreign land. But his child and wife need him. He is their protector; the husband, father, and head of the household.

Heroically, Joseph obeys God and immediately takes his wife and child out of harm’s way. He does not count the personal cost. This is the kind of heroic sacrifice sometimes required of parents and family members. Joseph approaches this situation as a husband and father, not a businessman.

Doing this is hard, and it is heroic; many a man’s ego is strongly linked to his work. As would most human beings, men naturally fear losing their livelihood. Joseph heroically trusts God and witnesses that his vocation as husband and father is more important than even his “paycheck.”

More than ever today we need more heroism of this sort. The pursuit of wealth and a comfortable lifestyle too often trump the essential work of being a parent and spouse. Lifestyles today are often too costly to maintain, requiring two incomes and/or long hours. But children need their parents at home more than they need a big house or nice cars. Having a vacation home may be nice but having your parents at home is better.

Too many parents today are willing to let strangers raise their children so that they can earn more money. For what? For the children? Really? If it is “for” them, why are they often pushed to the margins? Life is complicated, but every now and then it is good to re-examine our priorities and be willing to sacrifice for what is more important than what we merely desire.

Here, then, are some teachings on marriage and family from today’s feast. We do well to heed what the Lord teaches. Our families are in crisis. Individual choices have led us here and individual choices will have to lead us out.

God has a plan for marriage and family: one man and one woman in a stable, faithful, and fruitful union, raising their children in that context and bringing them up in the holy fear of the Lord. We must heed this plan or suffer the consequences.

Finally, there is a tendency when hearing teachings with which one has struggled to lash out in anger (“You’re judging me!”) or to become despondent and retreat into silence. Please do not do either. All of us, whether we have been able to keep to God’s teaching or not, ought to proclaim it. Perhaps you have not been able to get married and/or stay married. Perhaps you wanted to remain married, but your spouse was unwilling. Perhaps you had a child outside of marriage. This is all the more reason to speak clearly to your children and grandchildren and urge them to seek God’s graces early. God has a plan, and it is for our good not our ill. Teach it boldly and with courageous love!

Here is a video that describes typical family homes in Jesus’ time.

3 Replies to “Biblical Teaching on Marriage and Family—A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family”

  1. I used to watch the Flintstones as a kid. It never occurred to me that the adults were stupid. Barney only SOUNDED stupid.

  2. As usual, this discussion of husband and wife spent 3 paragraphs emphasizing power structures: authority of husband. Yet only 1 sentence on the husband “loving” the wife, whatever “love” means. Most Americans “love” movies!

    There should be equal emphasis on husbands leading by EXAMPLE and the Biblical command that “husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church and SACRIFICED Himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)

    Power is over-emphasized; while responsibility is under-emphasized.

  3. Thank you Father for really explaining the readings. I have never heard a good explanation of Col 3:19 from the pulpit, with one priest actually saying he disagreed with it. We need to hear why the Bible and the Church teaches the hard teachings. As you say, our modern notions of sexuality and family have been a disaster. Too often they are ignored or glossed over, to our detriment. Enjoyed the video!

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