Until recently, the definition of who really counts as family has traditionally boiled down to one question – “Are you blood?” Though we claim today to be more enlightened and inclusive, we still wrestle with many perceptions and customs that do more to divide us than to unite us. Let’s talk about our perception of family versus God’s perception of family.
The things we say
When we talk about who belongs to our family, who do we include? How do we talk about or what do we call each member of the family? Customs on who gets included, and what they are called are as fluid as the rain on your windshield; they are ever present, but always shifting.
Beyond the basics of how we refer to our brothers, sisters, and biological parents and grandparents, there are many other relations that have to be mentioned. There are inlaws/outlaws, currents and exes, those who are legally adopted, and those who are just absorbed into the group. The concern in my mind is how we talk about each other.
Elaine, my wife, adopted a baby in Romania many years ago, long before we were married. When we married, this daughter was sealed to us. So what is she? I had four children from my previous marriage. Is she their sister, even though she is not their biological sister? How are the other children supposed to treat her, as an outsider who is trying to work her way into the family, or as much one of the family as any of the other children?
How are the relatives supposed to refer to this new member of the family? Is she a coattail relation or is she as much my daughter as my children from another woman are my wife’s children? When someone talks about us by referring to “his children” and “her child” what are they really saying? Are they referring to the same family or have they mentally divided our family into two distinct groups?
When it came time for my wife’s family to settle their mother’s estate, there arose a discussion about which of my wife’s family members should qualify to receive an inheritance. After all, none of her children were blood relatives, the standard definition of who is family. Should the money be divided between just the blood descendents of grandma or among those who belong to the families of her children? Many of us today no longer have just blood relations as posterity. There are too many divorces and remarriages. Life is just not that clean.
What happens is that those who have only a couple of genetic children feel cheated if those who married into the family, or were adopted, now get considered for the pile of cash and prizes to be divided upon grandma’s death. After all, Elaine now has five children, none of which are of blood relation to her, to be considered, while her sibling only has two children, but both of them are blood descendants of grandma.
This is the question: who are these people who are not blood, but are supposed to belong to the family? Long ago it didn’t matter how good you were, how beloved, or how obedient, when it came to being counted as a child in the family, if you weren’t the firstborn male, or at least something close to that (but still a blood relation), you were completely cut out of the will. In other words, you didn’t count. You may as well have been a favorite piece of furniture. A piece of furniture would have had as much of a chance of being considered for the inheritance as you would ever have, having been adopted or entered the family through marriage.
What we do
Too often, despite all our comments and affirmations of inclusion and oneness in the family, when it comes time to talk about ourselves or to make decisions about who gets to do what in our family, lines are drawn between blood born children and those adopted into the family either through marriage or actual adoption. And that isn’t even including those people take into their homes as hanai children.
(Hanai children are those children raised by someone other than their biological parents, usually through prearrangement. In Hawaii, where the term comes from, if one sibling or friend couldn’t have children of their own, their sibling/friend would give them one of their own children to raise as their own. The children grew up knowing they were hanai, and knowing who their biological parents were. Consider it an open and free form of adoption – one big happy family. In these families the child belonged to both families equally. Every brother and sister was aware that one of their own was being raised elsewhere, but was still a member of the family. At least that is how I understand the practice.)
Unfortunately, even in my own family of multiple marriages, more grandparents than you can shake a stick at, and children in the same home from a multitude of parents who no longer live together, there is segregation and division. My first wife and I had four children. After our divorce I married Elaine and had her adopted daughter sealed to us. My first wife remarried and had another daughter. Sadly, some of my children consider their half sister their “sister,” because she is “blood,” even though only by half of her parentage. But their sister from my marriage to Elaine, who is sealed to us, is considered as a stranger. They feel no obligation, and none of the love for her that comes so naturally for their half sister.
How does the Lord look at our relations?
I decided to include all the verses of Matthew 20:1–15 so you don’t have to go anywhere but here to read the story. This is the parable of the master and the labourers. Please read it, or at least skim it to refresh your memory of the story. We’ll meet up again on the other side.
1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire into his vineyard.
2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his .
3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing in the marketplace,
4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
6 And about the hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?
7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the , and give them their , beginning from the last unto the first.
9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.
10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
This parable is used to teach us that God is impartial with His blessings. It doesn’t matter when we choose to repent and come to Christ, whether early in life or late in life, the blessings are the same. God’s greatest blessings are administered through the application of covenants. Now I ask you, if you’re baptized at the age of 92, are your blessings in heaven any less for a repentant life thereafter than are mine, who was baptized at the age of 8 and lived a repentant life? The answer, of course, is no. As long as the covenant is made and kept, the blessing is the same for both of us. This is one remarkable way in which God proves to us that He is no respecter of persons. We are all literally treated equally in every respect when it comes to the covenants offered and the blessings available with each of those covenants. All are alike to God.
Does blood really matter?
I know the historical answer to the question this title asks is “Yes!” But to God, who works through covenants and commandments, the answer would have to be “No!” The daughter my wife adopted in Romania all those decades ago is every bit my daughter through the sealing power of the temple that any of my other children are. After all, if I don’t keep my covenants to God I won’t have any of my children in the hereafter. The covenant makes all the difference. Blood relation makes zero difference.
This is how I understand the sealing power. Once we are all sealed back into the family of God, and we have all made covenants and we keep our covenants, we will ALL be family in the hereafter. Our adopted daughter will be every bit as much my mother’s granddaughter as my blood-born son or daughters will be her grandchildren, for all of us will be in the celestial kingdom together. (I’m exercising faith here that all of them will join us there one day.) It won’t matter what race our children were born into. It won’t matter who their biological parents were. All of us will be sealed as a family, connected to each other in wonderful ways approved by God for the enjoyment of all. This is my faith.
While we are in mortality, our earthly relationships will always feel messed up and confusing. All that will change when we get to the other side and Christ sorts us all out. But for now, the second great commandment tells us to love one another as we love our self. Now is our time to learn to not be a respecter of persons. We need to learn to embrace one another, and include one another, not exclude and separate. The world does enough of that already. Let us do as Christ does, open our arms and beckon all to come and be included, without prejudice or segregation.
Our family is what it is, with all of our adopted members, our exes and our in-laws, and our included friends and loved ones. Life is messy, we can’t help it. But it doesn’t have to be messy because we are unkind and unloving. Let us make our mess out of gathering those around us to us in love and acceptance, treating all alike. We may have to learn to speak about each other differently than we currently do, for often our very words push people away or cut them out of our circle of love.