Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. – Jesus (Luke 14:26)
Well, let’s jump right in, shall we? For the rest of my “Repent for Lent” series, I aim to wrestle, like Jacob in the Jabbok, a blessing from some of the most difficult scriptures in the Gospels. This week I chose Jesus’s shocking words on family, ironically, on behalf of my husband. As I was talking to him about this series, saying that I wanted to approach some of the scary and seemingly violent sayings of Jesus from a pacifist, Girardian perspective, I asked if he could think of any sayings of Jesus that made him uncomfortable. Immediately, he replied, “Yes! What was that thing about hating your family? That seems to go against all that nonviolent stuff you talk about!”
It does, doesn’t it? What in the world are pacifists supposed to do with these blunt and uncompromising words? How could the one who tells us to love our neighbors and enemies, who preached against divorce and said “let the children come to me,” ask us to hate our families? Clearly, there must be something more going on here. After reading the scripture in context, considering other sayings of Jesus, and researching the work of friends Michael Hardin at Preaching Peace and Paul Nuechterlein at the Girardian Lectionary, I think I have found an abundance of blessings in the midst of some very difficult challenges.
THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP
I have heard priests claim Jesus does not actually tell us to hate our families, but simply to prefer him over them. This explanation calls to mind another time the word “hate” (or actually, in this case, “despise”) was used – in Genesis 25, when Esau sells his birthright for a lentil stew. The passage ends, “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” He didn’t “despise” it in the sense that we understand the word, but he was willing to give it up.
Are we willing to give up – or risk losing – our families to follow Christ? One could rightly ask, “Why would we have to? What kind of God makes us choose against our families?” But in the context of his life and ministry, following Jesus was not without consequence. Jesus is warning us to consider the risk and inviting us to count the cost.
To declare Jesus Lord was to renounce the Pax Romana for the peace of Christ. And for first century Jews, to be a follower of Jesus was not only to deny Roman authority, but also to adopt an interpretation of Torah that went against popular understanding, ultimately leading to a view of the Messiah and even God that would appear upside-down to the dominant culture. What did it mean to declare a poor itinerant preacher – who touched lepers and ate with sinners and taught forgiveness of enemies – the Messiah? It meant breaking rules taught to you from childhood. It meant “hanging out” with the crowds your parents warned you about. And it meant relinquishing a faith that might have sustained your family through generations – faith in liberation through violent revolution under the protection of a warrior God. Jesus knew that all of this could lead to alienation from family, and that a reluctance to take such risks might stem from family loyalty. Jesus honestly admits that those who follow him run the risk of losing their families and even their lives.
But what risks do we take today to follow Jesus? Likely, far fewer than we should. To reach out to the outcast is still to risk being shunned. To forego vengeance is to risk being accused of weakness. To take a stand for peace against weapons and war is to risk insult, arrest, and even death depending on how much you are willing to cross the line. To actively love our enemies is to be liable for treason. While worshipping Jesus is popular, following him, by and large, is not. And when we honestly assess how far we would go to follow Jesus, are we willing to risk the strange glances of our families? Are we willing to speak truth not only to power, but to loved ones who might not want to hear it? And even if we have all the familial support we desire, are we willing to risk hurting them by putting ourselves at the risk for the sake of Christ’s peace?
When we ponder the costs we are willing to incur for the sake of Christ, we might admit that any risks we take on ourselves may also affect our loved ones. Acknowledging the truth of this might help us make sense of this verse, but it is still uncomfortable. “Hate” is still such a strong word. Is there more to Jesus’s use of it? I think so.
ACQUISITIVE VS. SELF-EMPTYING LOVE
One key to understanding the word “hate” is to juxtapose it against the way we understand “love.” If “hate” means “being willing to give up” (as we saw in the reference to Jacob and Esau), then “love” could mean “desiring to acquire.”
Mimetic theory has a lot to say about acquisitive desire. It tells us that we desire according to the desires of others, that as imitative creatures, we learn what we want as we perceive others wanting it. This kind of “love” seeks to build up the self in relation to others, often against or in rivalry with others. This imitative phenomenon is usually unconscious; unless we really examine ourselves, we think our desires are entirely our own. Moreover, the things we love – even if we may love them because of years of conditioning, advertising, social pressure, etc. – are part of our self-understanding, part of our identity. This is even more true of the people we love; we need them to be who we are. There are wonderful things about this relational love, being formed through relationship with others. But there is also a scary and pernicious side to this love if it makes us jealous, possessive, or controlling. When we want to make someone our own to gratify our desires, love can become stifling. If obsessive, possessive love is what the world understands, perhaps Jesus needs to use shocking language to make us understand how we love our families, and what “loving” our families at the expense of self-giving love for all (manifested in Jesus) looks like.
Or to put it another way, consider the great hymn in Philippians 2.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
Jesus’s self-giving love stands in stark contrast to the possessive love that too often drives our desires. In Paul’s testimony to Jesus’s humility, he says that Jesus “emptied” himself. Did he despise his identity as one who was in the form of God? Not at all, and yet is that not how it appeared to those who understood God’s holiness as being set apart from the Gentiles, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the unclean? Did he not appear to be a blasphemer and sinner by claiming to love those God was thought to hate? Jesus’s identity as God’s beloved Son is denied by those who crucify him in the name of the God they believe to be on their side.
Jesus loses everything for love of everyone. His love is not one that grasps but one that lets go. He went without wealth, home, or status. Even his identity, though secure in God, was turned upside-down in the eyes of the world. Though I can only guess, I wonder if losing his loved ones hurt most of all. For he is betrayed, denied and abandoned by those to whom he was closest, with a few notable exceptions. In the end, he must look down on those he loves from the cross as they endure the pain of letting him go.
MAMAS DON’T LET YOUR BABIES GROW UP TO BE SAVIORS
I’m thinking now in particular of his mother, Mary. If the model of self-emptying love in Jesus seems too hard to follow, it may help to consider his mother, whom Emmanuel McCarthy of The Center for Christian Nonviolence has called “The Lamb’s Lamb.”
She loved her son, but with a love that had to let him go. I wonder what she must have thought as she heard of him hanging out with the “wrong” crowds, angering authorities, overturning the sacrificial system of the Temple. I am sure she was proud of him. But as she saw him get into deeper and deeper trouble until the weight of the law came down against him and crushed him, what must she have felt? Did she ever try to steer him away from his radical and subversive way of love, for the sake of his own safety?
When does protective love become possessive love? It can be a fine line. We do not know from scripture if Mary’s love ever straddled that line. But we do know what Jesus said to Peter when he decried the notion of Jesus being put to death: “Get behind me, Satan!”
The truth is, we will not only be hindered from fully following Jesus by our families, but we will also be tempted to hinder our family members from fully following Jesus. There are times when protecting is the most loving thing we can do. But when we are tempted to protect ourselves or our loved ones from the ridicule, burden, and danger that following Jesus may incur, dare we trust in a love far greater than our own to provide a deeper security? Ultimately, Jesus had to trust in this love from his Abba. I believe Mary trusted in this love too. She trusted it when she said “yes” to the Holy Spirit and bore Jesus in her womb, and she trusted it throughout his lifetime as she anticipated the “sword that would pierce her own soul.”
A NEW KIND OF FAMILY
This risky, costly, self-emptying love will not leave us unfulfilled. As Jesus looked upon his mother and his beloved disciple from the cross, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” and to his disciple, “Behold, your mother!” Thus he mediated a new family for those who loved him, tenderly and intimately beginning to fulfill what he promised to his disciples:
Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)
To those of us anxious about losing loved ones to follow Christ, these words may be poor reassurance. Our families are irreplaceable. But for those shunned by their families, such a promise of belonging is a blessing. A family can be the ultimate “in crowd,” except for those who are cast out. But Jesus ever calls us to reach beyond the margins.
Jesus deconstructs the traditional family, with its exclusive boundaries, and rebuilds a family around himself, around unconditional love, that reaches out through the arms of the church (his body on earth) to include all of humanity. Risking our relationships with our family to follow Jesus will eventually bring us back to them as we expand our definition of “family” from our immediate loved ones to the children of God – that is, the whole world.