A few months ago, now, there was an article about how Warren Buffett, the richest, savviest stock investor in the US, has made a specific provision for his children after he dies. In March of this year, Forbes magazine ranked him #1 in the list of richest people on earth, with a net worth of about $620 billion. That’s with a B. The provision is not that this wealth gets to be split evenly among his children. They will inherit some, but not enough to live on. He is very clear that they feel they should make their own way, and they all agreed with him. That is quite an inheritance.
Inheritance has a lot of cultural baggage, doesn’t it? Nowadays, daughters can inherit land and property equally with sons, and it is left up to the discretion of the bequeather as to how the assets should go. Earlier cultures were not quite so open—they had much stronger rules for how the disposition of property should be handled when the landowner dies. In medieval times, the daughters could not inherit anything except in very specific cases—most times, they them selves were considered little more than property. The first born male was the primary inheritor, and while some things could be given to other sons, the duty of continuing the land ownership in the family name was generally understood to fall to the oldest son.
For those who weren’t noble, usually the father made the decision to split his lands equally among his sons and daughters, through their husbands, so that they would be able to live somewhere.
Further back in time, during the time of Moses, the law was set in Deuteronomy that the first born should receive a double portion of land and holdings, including slaves, and only males could inherit. It is the value of this inheritance, but not the inheritance itself, that the younger son asks for in the story of the prodigal. If he had actually received his inheritance, he would have received, I assume some land, and the end of the story could very well have been his returning to his own land and farming it after his adventures.
Inheritances are funny things. People can be assigned things that aren’t the usual bits—think of Leona Helmsley’s Maltese, who inherited a trust fund of $12 million. Two of her grandchildren got nothing.
When Jesus says that he will turn father against son, daughter against mother, and set all family members at odds to each other, it is a statement about inheritances. He requires that our primary loyalty be to him. Not to family—not to brother, not to father, sister, or even wife and child. It all must come second to him. This is a hard statement, because for one thing, in popular American Christianity, the stable family is the evidence of a strong relationship with God.
It’s seen as in bad taste to have someone in the family speak the language of choosing Jesus first, over father, mother, family. Good American nuclear families don’t send missionaries. Sure, perhaps they will go volunteer together at a soup kitchen somewhere, and perhaps the more adventurous ones will go on mission trips together, but speaking the language of Jesus first, family second is “just not done”.
True Christian Discipleship requires sacrifice. When Jesus says “I come not to bring peace but a sword, I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother. . . “, the ultimate sacrifice of his time was to surrender, to sever family ties. Family was everything, what tribe you were from meant everything. The tribe of Levi meant that you were a certain kind of person, and had to live a certain way. Here’s another way to think about it: Go down into the valley here, and see all the nationalities that still publicly declare themselves. Drive through north Wilkes Barre and see the Lithuanian and Slovakian flags. Go into South Scranton and main street in Avoca with all the Irish flags. Tribes still mean something to a lot of us.
Now imagine this scenario. By saying that your primary identity is as a Christian, above and before being Irish, for instance, there are implications. If you follow Christ, there are certain grudges you have to let go. If you follow Christ, you have to act differently with regard to the Troubles that were so much a part of Irish life both in the US and in Ireland. If you follow Christ, Protestants and Catholics become more akin to brothers and sisters. Acting as if this was so would certainly bring strife within your family, if they were not all inclined. To claim loyalty to Jesus over the side you were born into in Northern Ireland would certainly put you in harms’ way.
To claim Christ over family in these circumstances is certainly to lose your life as it appears. But to claim Christ in such an environment is to acknowledge him before others. To say that the way of peace here is the way of Christ, even against your own family, is to perhaps lose your life. But in that environment, what have you lost? Hatreds, old enmities that you have inherited but never participated in, the memories of old battles, some over 400 years ago, that you are bred to resent the loss of.
Not all families have such deep and clear animosities as these, but all families do have expectations, and growing as disciples in Christ puts us at odds against them. It may be as simple as choosing to do something at church instead of going to dinner at a relatives’ house.
When you choose Christ, you lose that life, and find the real life in Christ, the life of peace, the life of the Kingdom. This doesn’t mean a peaceful life; no, the life of Christ is often one that puts us at odds with the world. Instead, the life of Christ gives us the strength of belief in what’s right. We know that love is better than hatred. We know that love is stronger than anger. Giving up all that we are born into, in favor of being born from above in Christ, gives us the path to true life.
Our inheritance, therefore, is not based on our birth order. Our inheritance, in Christ, is equal to everyone else’s, without regard to whether we are son or daughter. There’s no double portion for being eldest. We are all adopted, we are all equal in the eyes of God. We all inherit the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness.
Seek Ye First, the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness,
And all these things shall be added unto you, Alleluia.