“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)
By Kathleen Durham
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 one of the most challenging commands given by Jesus in the Gospels, one that 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 glaringly obvious contradiction just mentioned, the surface-level interpretation of this passage goes against everything we know about Jesus, who even skeptics generally acknowledge to have been a good man.
Many scholars have noted that the key to understanding this extraordinarily cryptic saying of Jesus is a Semitic idiom denoting preference as opposed to hatred. Accordingly, saying “I like this and hate that…” is another way of saying “I prefer this to that” (Blomberg, Carid). In addition to this insight, it has often be noted that in Semitic thought ‘hate’ had a broader range of meaning than it does in English, including the sense of ‘leaving aside’, ‘renunciation’ or ‘abandonment’ (Bruce).
All well and good. But the fact is that Jesus’ commands still remain profoundly challenging—far more challenging than those we studied on Wednesday. There we were only told to relinquish our preoccupation with material goods and satisfaction; here 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, to be sure; but it must be done, because it is what is commanded of us, and in his commands are fullness of life. But it must also be done because this is the only way that we ourselves 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.
It is only by loving God above all things and all people that our sinful natures can become redeemed and sanctified so that we can be not only opened to His love, but also become more perfect instruments of that love to the people around us through our obedience to him. This will undoubtedly mean sometimes loving them in ways that are challenging and difficult to understand. It may even cost us relationships that are very dear to us.
It is in those moments that the deep paradox of Christ’s commands becomes most painfully evident. The call to “hate” our loved ones is actually a call to love them with the greatest love of all: that of the one who is Love, and his is the love of the cross.
Kathleeen Durham is Vice President of Alighieri Press. She also serves as an author, editor and speaker