Sometimes, when I hear certain Gospel passages, I have to stop and double check to see if I heard correctly. Did Jesus really just say that, to follow Jesus, we have to hate people? Can this be correct? How can Jesus possibly mean what he seems to be saying?
It would be nice to discover that I misread something. I’d also settle for the notion that some translator or copyist made some sort of horrible mistake with this passage. But no, there are no handy escape routes. Jesus really does seem to be giving us a list of folks we have to hate.
This same Jesus doesn’t let us hate our enemies, but here he is giving us a list of family members that we are supposed to hate. It makes no sense. It seems to contradict everything we know about Jesus. I don’t know if I even could hate my brother, or my father, or my mother… (I don’t have a sister – but if I did I don’t think I could hate her either)
Jesus gives us some “helpful” added instructions – helpful in the sense that they appear to be entirely unrelated. Do your planning before you build a tower… good to know. Don’t start a war you can’t win… I’ll keep that in mind. But really – how does this clarify the need to hate all my family? And more to the point, where is the Gospel, the Good News, in this?
Keep in mind that just before this passage Jesus has been telling us about healing a sick person on the Sabbath – which annoys the Pharisees. And he has been telling us about where to sit a dinner party – not in the seat of honor. He admonishes us, if we are planning a lovely dinner party, not to invite family and friends who live in comfort – since this means they will invite us back…
If you step back far enough a pattern does begin to emerge in this section of Luke’s Gospel. Luke is talking to folks who live in a very particular society with very particular rules. Luke is writing probably just after the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed and the destruction of the temple shatters the underpinnings of the society at large and the identity of individuals.
In times of upheaval like this, our tendency is to double down on what is familiar. When the ground is shifting around our feet, we desperately want something safe to hold on to.
What Jesus is doing is prodding us to let go of what makes us feel safe. Social structures like family and friends’ groups are comfortable. But Jesus does not seek to fortify these social structures – Jesus seeks to overturn them. We’re worried about safely walking, and Jesus is telling us to forget walking because we can fly.
For much of this chapter of Luke, Jesus has been telling us to let go of social conventions of various types. Step away from the wealthy and powerful. Step away from the comfortable and familiar. Step away from family, the most powerful attraction of all. That brings us to this morning’s story.
When Jesus tells his listeners that they must learn to hate mother, father, sister and brother, he’s telling them in the most absolute sort of terms that they have to break the ties of their current society. I suspect Jesus is using the word “hate” for shock value – at least that’s how it works on me. And the purpose of that shock is to help us to make space for what comes next.
Our ties of kinship and social group are to be replaced with ties of being part of God’s family. Our brothers and sisters are no longer limited to the family we were born into. Our blood relations have now expanded to include all people; all of God’s children. This change is not an option, it’s a requirement. If we could get to the point where we understand that we are all part of God’s family, then a world that is just and peaceful would not just be possible, it would be inevitable.
We’re not there,,, yet…
Human beings seem to have a powerful need to divide ourselves into sects, tribes, associations… And sadly, religion has often been at the center of that. In the US, some Christian leaders stood squarely on the side of slavery where God’s children were divided into the owners and the owned. Here in South Africa, some Christian leaders helped invent apartheid.
I think, when Jesus tells us we have to develop hatred for our kinship group, this is why. If we are to follow Jesus, then our kinship group must be the same as Jesus’ kinship group… And nobody is left out of Jesus’ kinship group. But for the sake of preserving our familiar, traditional kinship groups, the bodies have been piled high. The idea of my family or my community must be replaced with God’s family and God’s community.
But there is something else going on in Jesus anti-family-values. Jesus is answering a question that will not come clearly into focus until the first part of the twentieth century. It will take the work of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to clarify it for us. Jesus is telling us the cost of discipleship. And to put it simply, the cost of discipleship is high; High enough to cost our entire lives.
Discipleship will cost our family relationships. It will cost us our social status. In the time of Jesus these were the basic components of identity, of self. This is what Jesus means when he talks about leaving self behind.
It is not safe or comfortable to think about discipleship costing us everything we value. Yet as we inch our way to this form of self-abandonment the result is not misery, but liberation. The outcome is not sorrow, but joy.
The notion of estimating the cost of a building project before you start seems pretty obvious. Before you undertake something, be it a building, construction, or a war, destruction, you want to be sure that you have what you need.
Of course, Jesus does not want us to build grand buildings or wage successful wars. Jesus wants us to build God’s Kingdom. This means letting go of our concepts of sensible economics. If we consider the cost and complexity of building God’s kingdom, surely, we will never start. If we consider the cost and complexity of building a world moved by love and justice rather than riches and rewards, then we will be condemned to live in a world of terrible injustice.
In various planning meetings within the Order of Holy Cross we have often come to the decision point which asks us to be sensible, to make a sensible plan… to develop a good business model. The response to that sensible thinking is that sensible people do not become monks… And really, when you get right down to it, sensible people do not follow Jesus…
Jesus is not calling us to be practical in this process. Jesus is calling us to a world where justice flows like a mighty river and waters the entire planet. We’re called to join Jesus in that heavenly city where there are twelve gates – three in every direction. And those gates are open all day and there is no night. However and whenever we approach, there is a gate open for us.
Our culture teaches us that the world is composed of winners and losers – and we should all diligently work to be winners. And if we are winners, then we should look with pity on the losers.
But I don’t think Jesus gives us permission for that. In the mystical body of Christ there are no winners and losers… no us and them – only us. We are one body. And if a part of the body is injured, then the whole body is injured. None of us can be whole until all of us are whole.
If we start to calculate the cost of discipleship, we are likely to turn back. It is a cost higher than we can possibly imagine – certainly higher than we can pay. But in God, all things are possible. Part of the cost of discipleship is giving up the notion that I can and must do things on my own.
Our brothers and sisters with mystical inclinations have the ability to catch glimpses now and then of God’s kingdom. Its not some far distant place. We are in the midst of it. We’re just not able to see it… yet. But that is because our vision is clouded by our being sensible and careful people…
Perhaps if Jesus were telling us this gospel story today, he wouldn’t tell us that we have to hate father and mother, sister and brother… he would tell us that we have to hate sensible planning, cost-benefit analysis, and focus group testing.
We have to give up our training wheels and safety nets and things that give us the feeling, the illusion, of security and learn to trust that, with God’s help, we can fly.