Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Descendants

"To you and to your descendants I give this land..." Gen 15:18

In the Scriptures, there is much written about carving out a place for one's descendants. From the patriarchs like Abraham and Sarah to the royal line of David and Solomon, much is spoken about the promised heritage that is to come.

From ancient times, the concept of family has been integral to one's experiences of faith and spirituality. However, times have changed - and this concept has slowly eroded.

This is the backdrop to the characters in The Descendants, the story of a Honolulu family with a rich Hawaiian heritage that stretches back hundreds of years. The King family, appropriately named for their connection to Hawaiian royalty, is about to make a decision regarding ownership of their land on the island of Kaua'i - and the impact of such a sale would not only affect the Kings, but the citizens of the whole state.

Immediately prior to this deal, the wife of Matt King (George Clooney), sole trustee of the family and its assets, is left comatose after a horrible boating accident. The bulk of the film revolves around how he and his family handle this developing situation in light of the major decisions that must take place.

Several problems begin to unfold: first, Matt must become a full-time parent to his two troublesome daughters who cause havoc in their schools; second, Matt must face the reality that, due to her living will, his wife will need to be pulled from life support; and third, Matt begins to discover that his wife was actually having an affair when she had the accident.

Like Job in the Scriptures, as his world becomes unraveled, Matt begins to doubt everything he thought he knew and held sacred. But also like Job, he has a choice: either wallow in denial and self-pity - or chart a new course and take action in that direction.

Family life is never easy. It is full of pitfalls and craziness. Many people today just accept the reality of dysfunction in their homes, choosing to let the prevailing wind rule the day. That was the path along which Matt King was journeying at the start of the story - and perhaps it was a path that caused his kids to misbehave, his wife to stray, and his priorities to be out of line with what really mattered.

This film also shows us another common misconception about family: that it's a private matter. Many of us feel that marriage, children, and heritage are issues that are deeply personal and involve no one but our blood relatives. But as we see in The Descendants, the family decisions of the Kings impact the lives and fortunes of the other citizens of Hawaii.

This reminds us that no family decision is truly individualistic - and that our family unit are social institutions, affecting circumstances beyond our immediate circles.

In the Scriptures, God spoke to Abraham about the future of his family, saying "To you and to your descendants I give this land..." - knowing full-well that such a gift would impact not only forthcoming generations, but also the other people, families, and nations around those people. This family unit would produce the likes of Joseph and his brothers, Moses and Joshua, David and Solomon, and ultimately Jesus of Nazareth. This family unit would find itself in slavery, in their own kingdom, in exile, and eventually be scattered across the globe and become the Jewish People we know today. As history tells us, this family has had a profound impact on the world around them.

As we look to our own situation, we realize that we are the descendants of a family, no matter how mixed or convoluted our heritage might be. How are we carrying on the traditions passed onto us? How are we honoring our past by the actions of the present? How are we, inspired by our heritage, making an impact on our world?

In a similar way, we also realize that there will be descendants to follow us. How are we passing the lessons of our family's past to our children and grandchildren? How are we ensuring a positive and life-giving future for future generations?

And in our global age, is it possible that the definitions of family and heritage are changing? Even Jesus challenged the traditional definition of family: "Jesus asked, 'Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?' And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.'" (Mt. 12:48-50)

In a digital era such as ours, the concept of family does not need to be eroded, but expanded. With the realization that family is not a private matter, but a social experience, we can expand our family life to include our friends, our teachers and students, our parish and community, our colleagues and neighbors. And with that new understanding of heritage, we again ask ourselves: what has been passed onto us - and how will we pass this onto others? So whether we speak of blood ties or not, the responsibility falls to us to, as the prophet says, "not make our heritage a reproach." (Joel 2:17)

Like Abraham and Moses after him, Matt King was physically able to look out on his land and upon his descendants - and with that view, make the best decision not just for himself and his personal finances, but for the community beyond himself.

Let us pray that our own decisions are not seen as private matters for the few people closest to us - but instead are carried out with a larger picture in mind and for the benefit of a world greater than ourselves. Then, like the descendants of Abraham, we can truly change the world.

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