“Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, ‘If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.’” (Luke 14: 25-28)
What is your honest reaction to the passage above?
Does it make you uncomfortable and perhaps a bit wary of Jesus? Does it make you want to throw in the towel on discipleship, since it seems to demand something that is not only not possible, but also objectively bad? Or do you gloss over it as one of the many indecipherable passages of the Bible that are best left alone in preference for the clearer, more palatable commands?
To be honest, I’ve gone through all of these reactions with regards to this passage, and many more. It is undoubtedly among the most challenging commands given by Jesus in the Gospels and grates against everything we know to be good and true. Just eight chapters ago we were commanded to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us; and yet here it seems that one of the primary qualifications for discipleship is to hate the very people that are most important to us, who in many cases have loved and cared for us more than anyone else. Something is very wrong about this picture.
Most of us have the sense that there must be more than meets the eye here. Besides the apparent contradiction just mentioned it seems to go against everything we know about Jesus, who even skeptics generally acknowledge to have been a good man.
According to many scholars the key to understanding this extraordinarily cryptic saying of Jesus is a Semitic idiom that points not to hate, but to preference. In this light, saying “I like this and hate that…” is another way of saying “I prefer this to that” (Blomberg, Carid). In addition, others have made the point that in Semitic thought ‘hate’ had a broader range of meaning than it does in English, meaning also ‘leaving aside’, ‘renunciation’ or ‘abandonment’ (Bruce).
All this is well and good, but the fact is that Jesus’ command here still remains profoundly challenging. Often as Christians we are told we must relinquish our preoccupation with material goods and satisfaction; here, however, we are told that we must also relinquish the very relationships that mean the most to us. If the very idea of this does not make us wince, then we have not considered it deeply enough. It means taking your children, your wife, your husband, your mother or father, sister or brother, your best friend—anyone and everyone who means the most to you in your life—and placing your love for them second to your love for God.
Easier said than done.
But it must be done, not only because it is what is commanded of us, but because in his commands are fullness of life. And as such, it must be done because this is the only way that we and those we love can become perfected in love. Even our greatest and purest loves are disordered. Despite all our intentions, we love in ways that are often less than healthy, if not altogether unhealthy—both for others or ourselves. Even our best efforts to love are in need of redemption because they can so easily fall into a pattern of enabling and other well-meaning, but ultimately unhelpful patterns of behavior.
It is only by loving God above all things and all people that we can not only be opened to His love, but also formed by it, and so become more perfect instruments of that same love to the people in our lives and around us. Sometimes this will mean sometimes loving them in ways that are challenging and difficult to understand, but it is always rooted in the sure hope and confidence that God’s love for them is infinitely greater than our own. For he is the one who is Love, and his is the love of the cross.
Kathleen Durham is a Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.