Luke 14:26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
These are harsh words of Jesus. One is not accustomed to hearing such words from him, so it is shocking to hear him speak in this manner. Matthew’s version is quite different and abbreviated. This difference will have to be explored to see what light it may shed on Luke’s version of the words of Jesus, though I shall not attempt that in this meditation. Luke follows the Q-document while Matthew goes in a different direction. It is difficult to understand what Luke is trying to communicate here, but one cannot refrain from taking this seriously enough to pursue this thought to its source and uncovering its true meaning.
The difficulty is compounded when one considers that Jesus emphasizes the commandment to honor father and mother, (Luke 18:20). His teaching concerning divorce (Luke 16:18) demonstrated his commitment to an integrated family with strong personal bonds. In the calling of the disciples (Matthew 4:18) Jesus made no demand on them to leave family behind, or more strongly, to hate family. On one occasion he healed Simon’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39). He healed the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:22; Luke 8:40-56). He healed an epileptic boy and restored him to his father (Luke 9:37-42). He restored life to the only son of the widow of Nain, a mother on the way to the cemetery (Luke 7:11-15). These passages and many more reveal how Jesus understood relationships within families and communities. There is ample data to demonstrate that Jesus did not preach a message of hate. The Great Commandment includes loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:29-31). He teaches to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27).
What does Jesus really think about family? The answer to this question is not immediately obvious or available. It must be sought by a careful exploration of the synoptic gospels, beginning with a focus on the tradition of the family into which he was born. Luke’s birth and infancy narratives offer a rich source of the religious tradition that shaped Jesus. There are stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth, of Mary and Joseph. These provide insights into the religious background of family life and the foundation upon which this depended. The stories demonstrate that Jesus was a special child born for great things; consequently, the role of family tradition is important. Still, one must approach the material cautiously with the understanding that the gospel materials have been shaped by theological motifs rather than historical demands. Luke (12:49) tells the story of Jesus at age 12 in the Temple. It is likely an ancient legend preserved by Luke because is congruent with his theme of Jesus and the Temple. Jesus was lost for three days. His parents sought him and finally found him in the Temple among scholars teaching and learning. He was baffled at his parents’ scolding, that they did not realize he would be in the Temple going about his Father’s business. Jesus seemed to assume not only that his parents would know this but also would understand why he was doing it. His attitude demonstrated that he fully expected his parents to support what he was doing because this was expected of him from his birth. Nevertheless, he left the temple, obedient to his parents’ authority. This story indicates that within his family there was the expectation of respect and obedience to authority, namely, honor to father and mother. He learned this lesson well.
Jesus was reared in the context of religious law and practice. His parents went every year to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. (Luke 2:41). He was circumcised (vs.21) and given his name according to custom. He was taken to the Temple for purification and presentation (vs.22) as was expected according to Exodus 13:2, 12. According to Luke 2:39 the family performed everything according to the law of the Lord before they returned to Nazareth. It was also in this religious context that Jesus learned the Great Commandment that he made use of in his preaching and teaching. All of these events would have given Jesus a very positive understanding of the importance of family.
In Luke 3:23, at his baptism the voice from heaven proclaimed, “Thou art my beloved son.” This confirms what Jesus had told his parents they found him in the Temple. In the Temptation the devil challenged his sonship, and Jesus vanquished him with words from scripture. (Luke 4:1-12). For Jesus, family relationships are deeply embedded in scriptures. The Good Samaritan (10:29-37) and the Prodigal Son, (Luke 15: 11-32) emphasize love for neighbor and love within family. Such love is embedded in the commandments. All of these examples point to the certainty that Jesus accepted the religious tradition handed on to him through his family. From this analysis I conclude that inspite of the obvious reading of Luke 14:26 Jesus was not asking his followers to live a life of hate. This calls for further analysis.
I will now focus my investigation in another direction which will bring us closer to understanding the meaning of Luke 14:26.
Luke 3:15-17. In this passage John the Baptist announces that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Ahead of this baptism Jesus came prepared with a winnowing fork to separate the wheat from the chaff. The chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. The wheat will be gathered into the granary. Perhaps this is an obscure reference to the church, the gathering of the people of God from the four corners of the world, but such importance need not be attached to the statement. John is proclaiming that with the arrival of Jesus something new breaks in upon the world. John himself had begun his prophetic ministry by announcing that “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 2:9). Jesus promotes similar ideas (Luke 17:33-35). See also Matthew 25:31-460). This indicates that in the presence of Jesus people are separated into different camps by their own action. “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not do what I tell you?”(Luke 7:46). Jesus then described those who come to him and hear his words. They are like a house build upon a rock, a solid foundation, unshakable. Those who hear his words and do not do them are like a house built upon sand. Jesus is presenting the idea that to follow him one must hear and do and stand firm. That is to say, to follow Jesus is to make a choice for a particular disposition towards Jesus, towards one’s own life and towards the future. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (11:28).
On his first visit to the home of Martha and Mary, (Luke 10:38-42) in Bethany Jesus found two sisters who demonstrated two different ways of relating to him. He responded to Martha’s concerns by saying, “One thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion and it shall not be taken from her.” One thing is needful, to choose or not to choose Jesus. “No one can serve two masters.” (16:13). “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” (11:23). “Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead.” (9:49). “No one who puts his hand on the plow and looks back is worthy of the kingdom of God.” (9:62). Jesus told the rich young man who wanted to inherit eternal life,” One thing you still lack. Sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” (18:22). “So whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”(Luke 14:33). There is a price to be paid for following Jesus. One must abandon everything in this world and not be bound by anything. Only those who are completely free can make a completely free decision to follow Jesus. The disciples left their nets and their work. Since people are frequently defined by their work, those who follow Jesus leave behind their definition and self-understanding in order to be open and free to accept the definition “blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Jesus is equally firm with his own family. In Luke 8:19-21, an abbreviated form of Mark 3 and Matthew 12, the story of told that the mother and brothers of Jesus were waiting for him. He replied, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
Jesus continually demanded obedience to the word of God. It is this obedience that is the foundation of family life. Implicit in this demand is a radical Christocentric theology. It is only from within such a Christocentric theology that Luke 14:26 can be understood. Human hate separates. Divine love unites. Christ the center demands of his followers that everything and everyone be left at the margins. The kingdom of God must be sought for its own sake. Such seeking must not be diverted by any kind of attachment to this world, no matter how precious they are. Whoever comes to Jesus comes alone; stands in the light of his countenance alone; endures alone the scrutiny which the invitation brings. Ultimately and finally every human being stands alone before Jesus. In the midst of the gathered people of God at worship, the follower of Jesus stands alone, with a uniqueness that has its origin in the divine. The center is always where Christ stands. The center itself draws towards it those who have decided to follow Jesus. However, the question of hate still needs to be answered.
The Phenomenon of Hate
At is most obvious level, hate is separation. Human beings belong together in the shared world of daily commerce. Hate is a denial and rejection of the vital connectedness that makes life together possible in this world. Out of the possibilities that present themselves in the shared world meanings emerge: simple meanings such as “I can go shopping.” Or more complicated ones can emerge such as, “I can grieve my dead.” Hate is always potentially present. When it actualizes hate renders meaningless the human relatedness that is required for shared existence. Hate is therefore not a psychological response to the action of the Other, but is always a decisive, active action of will. To hate is to will meaningless; to will separation; to will isolation. The hater languishes there where there is darkness and no light.
Being together in the world is characteristic of human beings. Hate renders the hater “worldless” in that it removes the hater from the commonly shared space where existence actualizes itself. To exist without a world is to be thrown into existential isolation, which is properly the essence of sin removed from its theological protection. Being together in the world as a characteristic of human existence requires openness to avail oneself of emerging meanings that are potentially transformative, and that randomly occur in open spaces between human beings. Hate closes off, restricts, all openness. Hate rejects the possibility of meanings arising randomly in that it denies the possibility of existence of the Other as an actual human being who is openly available for encounter, that is, for generating meaning within shared space. As such hate is a concrete way of existing in the world, established on the basis of denial, rejection, abandonment, and isolation. The hater exists in a space that now lacks definition, a space that has been deprived of its content, namely, human presence, the essence of which is the possibility of free co-existence. Hate as a decisive, active act of will confines the hater in a specific moment, the present, out of which the hater cannot emerge. Consequently, the hater is immersed in existential isolation. Hate renders their world relationless. The hater languishes from where there is no exit.
Existing together in a shared world discloses that all relationships are somatically defined. Human beings do not and cannot exist bodily apart from the shared world in which their meanings emerge. Without body there is neither sight nor sound; speech nor hearing; feeling nor sensing. When the body is confined by hate the human being ceases to be present to the Other in a transformative way. The human being simply ceases to be.
Those who have denied, rejected all family relationships and have relinquished their at-homeness in this world, in their complete existential estrangement and is0lation are now given a new invitation by Jesus. “Follow me!”
I propose that the foregoing analysis provides a framework within which one may understand and make some sense of Luke 14:26 – “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus enters into the dark existential isolation of these persons with a proclamation of hope. He announces, “I am the light of the world. Follow me!” Jesus breaks into their closed world with his proclamation of hope. He announces, “I am the way. Follow me!” Jesus enters into their world where life is not. He proclaims hope to them. “I am the resurrection and the life. Follow me!”
I would like to end my meditation by quoting one of my most favorite theological passages. It is the closing paragraph of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus.
“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”