“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” Matthew 10:37
Is it wrong to want to become rich in order to support one’s parents? Filial piety, strongly felt in traditional Asian cultures, says it is not only not wrong but virtuous and ideal to do so. Thus many believers sincerely feel that becoming wealthy, not to live luxuriously themselves, but in order to pay the mortgage for their parents, to provide relief for their disrespected lives, and to offer them vacation trips that more wealthy parents have always taken for granted, is completely justified. So long as these filial pious believers themselves do not overindulge in the fruits of their labors, they see nothing wrong with allowing their beloved parents to enjoy them. It is the least that they can do for their parents who sacrificed so much time, comfort, and pleasure for their children to have better lives than they had. Indeed to do less when enabled to provide more for their parents’ comfort and enjoyment would be the height of ingratitude. This is the mindset of the traditionally filial pious.
Whether this reasoning is sinful or not can be clarified by viewing traditional filial piety through the lens of two perspectives: through parents; and through Jesus. At the outset, let it be clear that the issue is not whether one should help provide for the basic needs of his or her family. Allowing one’s family to starve, be homeless, or go uneducated would be anathema and make one worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8). Incidentally one does not have to be rich in order to provide for basic needs. But having said that, neither is the issue here whether it is a sin to be rich or not. What is at issue is the motivation or intention of the filial pious. A desire to show gratitude and love to one’s parents cannot be faulted, but is the wealthy way the Christian way? In view of these clarifications, let us proceed to the first juxtaposition.
If wealthy parents were able to provide their children a home in an upper-middle class community with the best education that money could buy, would they be right in doing so or wrong in not doing so? Suppose these wealthy parents were devout and would by themselves be perfectly content living in a modest condominium in the inner city where they could minister to the poor even at the risk of their own safety and comfort. But because of their children, suppose that they were unwilling to live according to these convictions. In their minds, to require their children to live by their convictions, to sacrifice the above average security, comfort, and pleasure that their children could possibly enjoy and that they as wealthy parents could provide, would be to love their children less and be less responsible parents. Would they be wrong to think so? Is it wrong for them to apply such a double standard in their views on the authentic Christian life, i.e., one for them, and one for their children?
These difficult questions find some resolution in the second juxtaposition, which illustrates the greatest filial pious act recorded in history. Jesus’ relationship with His mother sheds light on what is the true measure of a good child (or a good parent).
In John 19:25-27, it is written:
“Near the cross of Jesus stood His mother, His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw His mother there, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
If Jesus were traditionally filial pious, He would have done better as a son to have the more rich and prominent follower Joseph of Arimathea or Matthew the tax collector to take her under their care. Indeed if Jesus were traditionally filial pious, He would not have voluntarily sacrificed His life, causing such anguish to His mother unnecessarily. These would be fair objections if the good life were measured by worldly standards. If the fundamental assumption of traditional filial piety, atheism, were true, then Jesus could not be viewed as a model son.
But the Christian rejects the assumption of traditional filial piety. For the believer, Jesus demonstrates that a person can love his parents more if he loves God above his parents than if he had tried on his own to love and honor his parents more than God. For loving God more helps a person value and love the souls of his beloved family and friends more than if he were to love God less. The Christian’s fundamental assumption here is that the soul is just as, if not infinitely more, valuable than the body. Thus it is because Christ loved God most that He loved His mother enough to die for her sins. By transcending traditional filial piety, Jesus was able to love His mother more profoundly than if He had conformed to the standards of the world. Thus by honoring God most, we can honor our relatives and friends even more by our association with them as saints than as material benefactors. Mary was blessed among all women because her son loved God more than her.
In sum, parents who could provide the best that money could buy for their children but do not and instead raise their children with modest means in modest settings could only be less loving in the mind of the atheist. For the Christian, however, such a parental choice could be one of the most loving acts for the child. It can avoid double standards of faith and show the child that the parents value his or her soul as much as they do their own. Likewise, children who could provide more than the basic needs of their hard-working parents but do not and instead choose a job beneficial to the public interest could only be less loving in the mind of the atheist for whom the soul is less valuable than the body. For the Christian, however, such a choice can demonstrate incomparable filial piety because it credits and honors faithful parents who raise such Christ-like children. Or if their parents were unbelievers, the Christian’s choice may be their strongest witness for their parents’ salvation.