“If anyone comes to Me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”
Huh? What? Hate? Did Jesus really say this? What did He mean?
We all have lots of questions when we hear this weekend's Gospel reading. It's shocking and a little scary, and it wakes us up. And that's exactly what Jesus meant to do.
To understand Jesus' statement, we need to first off understand something about the expressions of the Semitic culture in which Jesus lived. This culture was prone to exaggerated statements that got people's attention by shocking the daylights out of them. And certainly that's what Jesus is doing here. He wants us to be shocked so we pay attention and think deeply about His words.
Second, we must understand the meaning of the word “hate” in the original language. When I say “original language” here, though, I don't mean Greek this time. I mean Aramaic, the language Jesus and His disciples used in their common, everyday speech. Aramaic doesn't have a structure of comparatives. There isn't a way to say greater or less, better or best, worse or worst.
So the word “hate” had a much broader range of meaning in Aramaic than it does in Greek or English. It could mean everything from despising someone to renouncing someone to detaching oneself from someone to loving someone less than another.
Even in English, we use the word “hate” more broadly than our first impressions suggest. We might say, “I hate it!” about beets and really mean that they don't suit our taste at all. We might exclaim, “I hate that I did that!” and mean that we renounce our action and are sorry for it. We might even remark, “I hate to say it, but...” and mean that we reject (more or less) having to express an opinion or a fact.
When we examine Jesus' words in the broader context of His teachings, we know right away that He is not telling us to despise people or hurt them deliberately. This is, after all, the same Jesus Who tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves and, even more, as He loves us. What He means here is that we must choose Him above all else in our lives, even the people closest to us. We must love Him more than we love them even to the point of detaching ourselves from them if we must.
We might wonder, then, why Luke chose to render Jesus' Aramaic word and Semitic idiom as the strong word “hate” in the Greek. Matthew did not. He translated the idiom rather than the word (and this helps us understand Luke's version better): “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me...” (Matthew 10:37). So why did Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, leave the word “hate” in place?
Perhaps he could see that people would need a strong message like this in the future. Perhaps he knew that the shock value of the statement would get people thinking and talking. Perhaps he realized that Christians would sometimes face difficult choices and need to hear strong words to help them choose rightly.
And he was correct. Christians of every time and place have needed a strong reminder to put Christ first in their lives and keep Him there. Those who faced martyrdom, for example, sometimes had to tune out the pleas of their grieving families. “Remember us!” they may have cried. “Think of us! What will happen to us if you die? Can't you just say the words they want to hear without meaning them in your heart?” “No,” the martyr had to respond. “I love you, but I love Jesus more, and I will not renounce Him for anything in the world, even if it means leaving you behind.”
Maybe the scenario wouldn't even be as dramatic as martyrdom. Picture a family in poverty. The man has a chance to earn some extra money, but it would mean doing something morally wrong. His wife might encourage him to ignore his conscience just this once. “It's not much,” she might urge, “just a little thing, and think of how much that money would mean to our family. Couldn't you just do it for us?” But the husband, if he truly follows Christ, would have to refuse. He would have to put God's moral law first, trusting that God would provide for his family.
Divine love must always take priority over human affections. We must always choose Christ even when that means acting against the wishes of our families and friends. We must always strive to draw our human love up into divine love and to allow God to love our dear ones through us. Sometimes this might not look like love to them or to the world. As we detach ourselves from the world and follow Christ, our choices and actions might even seem like hate in human eyes. But it is not hate. It is a love stronger and deeper than any other, for when we belong to God Who is Love and when we are filled with His love, we can love our fellow human beings in a whole new way, a way that leads to eternity.