“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.” Luke 14:26
In preaching there are certain Bible passages that have, over the years, been labeled “Texts of terror.” Less dramatic commentators may soft-sell the situation a bit, simply calling them “the hard sayings of Jesus” or a “challenging” passage. Perhaps, it’s their way of trying to reduce preacher distress. But I go for the dramatic. I think the person who first used the word “terror” was dead on. Because that’s what most preachers think when they see a passage like this one scheduled for the upcoming Sunday. And I promise you, the first thought is “Oh no, how did I draw this one.” Followed soon after with, “Why me, Lord?
And if God were like a person with a face and a voice maybe he’d just smile and say, “You know, Torrence, there are no coincidences in life. Work on it!”
We don’t like it when people hate each other – particularly in families. What parent doesn’t cringe when they hear yelling and screaming in the next room and one sibling bellows out to the other, “I hate you!” But then maybe, in this my moment of true confessions, I’m the only one in the room who’s had children do that. Maybe other parents have just been smarter than I was and avoided such scenes in their families. I’m reminded of the story of a teacher in a parochial school classroom asking children to write notes to God. One wrote: “Dear God: Maybe Cain and Abel wouldn’t have killed each other if they had their own rooms. That’s what my Mom did for me and my brother.”
And I remember the story my daughter-in-law told me about my oldest grandson. She discovered three-year old oldest grandson alone, or so it seemed, in his new baby brother’s room one afternoon. Baby brother was not to seen – several baby blankets, a quilt and stuffed animals totally covering him, head and all. Quickly pulling baby brother out from under, Shannon said, “Oh, how sweet of you. Were you covering up your little brother so he wouldn’t get cold?” Oldest grandson simply replied. “No. Mommy, we don’t need him any more.” Sounds like a pint-sized twist to a story of adult brothers – Joseph’s older brothers when they saw little brother in a coat of many colors.
And these are stories about childish ways we can laugh about, later, and tell at family gatherings over the years because children are really so innocent. And of course, in their little bodies and unformed minds, they don’t really mean these things. Do they? Even when teenagers slam out of the house with that look that could kill whatever’s in their path, there’s some sense, some hope that springs eternal in the parental breast, that, of course, in due time, they will grow out of it.
But all this changes with age. When adults exhibit hateful behavior we become concerned. Hate seems to breed terrible consequences for everyone – for the one who hates, the one who is hated and those in near proximity to the hating.
I was a divorce attorney and family mediator for twenty years. I’ve seen hate. I’ve really seen hate. I’ve seen so much hate that at times the whole world seemed black. I’ve sat in rooms in depositions, in settlement conferences, in courtrooms, even in mediation rooms, where the hate was so real I felt it was actually a type of physical matter filling the room. I’ve felt its powerful presence. I’ve seen its terrifying results.
I remember a man who came to me for a case consultation. An hour later after reciting the events leading up to his appointment with me and the fact of his wife’s leaving him, I quoted him a fee – it was not small. He calmly pulled out his checkbook, wrote without hesitation the deposit I had required. Then he stood to leave. His eyes fierce and his face darkening, he said to me. “I want you to crush her. I want you to absolutely crush her.” I silently handed his check back to him. His face darkened more. I said, “I will not be your avenging angel!”
I remember a woman I was representing. I was to meet her and her line-up of witnesses one Sunday afternoon to prepare for the several day court proceeding that was to begin the next week. As I was getting in my car to leave, my husband rushed out the door and stopped me. It was a phone call from the county sheriff’s office. My client had been shot by her husband. He had broken into the house and waited for her return home after church. How did the sheriff know to call me? My name, the list of witnesses and the time we were to meet at the house were on a pad on her kitchen table. The next time I saw my client – on the day the court proceeding was to start – was in a casket at a funeral home. I never saw her husband again. Just after he shot his wife, he called the sheriff’s office from her telephone. While talking to the deputy, whom he knew, he shot and killed himself.
We’ve all seen newspaper stories about the man who rammed a bulldozer into his ex-wife’s house, or the woman who tried to run over her husband with the family car, or the father who shoots his wife and their children after she gets a restraining order and temporary custody of the kids. These stories surprise their readers. They don’t surprise a divorce attorney. They are just too familiar.
I have felt hate. I have experienced hate. As a child I was around family members arguing with each other and hurting each other – maybe not physically – but in ways that were emotionally devastating. While I was growing up I had a relative who, when drunk, expressed hate towards me and towards others I loved. And, too many times, I hated in return. I’ve been through a divorce and have felt hate at what was happening to me and felt hate at whom I thought was causing what was happening to me.
I’ve seen hate. I’ve seen it within families. I’ve seen what it does to people. I’ve felt hate myself. I didn’t like what it did to me. I ultimately came to a point where I didn’t want hate in my life; either personally or professionally. I didn’t want to carry around all that darkness. I didn’t want to be surrounded by hate on a day-in and day-out basis which is what my profession seemed to present as a constant reality. I wanted to become part of a building up process, a process that would be transformative for people, one that encouraged and bred love. And it was then, in combination with some other major events in my life, my journey towards serving Christ in all things began. It was like a slow motion but life changing road-to-Damascus experience for me.
And so how can I reconcile this passage today with an overwhelming accumulation of life and professional experience that points to hate and says, it’s devastating, it’s bad, it’s really bad? And it’s especially so when, like a lethal poison, it enters the blood stream of families and, then, too often is carried from one generation to the next.
I’ve put my feet, my heart, my whole self on a discipleship path which I thought was about love. None of us expect our journey of discipleship to be easy. But didn’t we think when we started it was going to be about our loving one another. Why, why now is Jesus preaching hate?
At Union Seminary students in New Testament are required to do a major exegetical paper on a significant gospel passage. This one, about hate, was on the list. I picked it. In some way I had to do it. Because I had to face the question this passage poses for the “wanna-be” disciple. I felt called to become a priest. But how could I do what this passage seemed to say I had to do – hate my husband, my children, my family all those who had supported me, loved me, sustained me. How could I turn my back on those who depended on my love as I depended on theirs? Isn’t that what Jesus was demanding?
This passage confronts us with what appears to be a lose/lose choice. It confronts all of us who want to follow Christ. I think we’re all “wanna-be” disciples or we wouldn’t be here today. We wouldn’t be listening to the Word of God and trying to figure out how we are to live it – to be doers and not hearers only.
Jesus says in this passage in Luke. “Here’s what you have to do to be a disciple.” And we’re stunned. And then He says, “Count the cost before you sign up.”
What do you think would happen if we confronted each new visitor, each new potential member of St. James’s at the door and said, “Just a minute! Before you come in, I want to tell you what you have to do if you want to enter.” Really make you want to be on the welcoming committee, doesn’t it?
I probably was desperate when I researched this passage in Seminary. But I discovered a nugget of gold in digging deeper and deeper into the word “hate” – going back through the Greek and to the word’s Semitic origins. “To hate is a Semitic expression meaning to turn away from, to detach oneself from.” (Craddock, Fred B., Interpretation: Luke, p. 181) It’s not a word of emotion; it’s a word that deals with choice and with priority. I have clung to this nugget like someone in deep water clinging to a life preserver – still in water over my head, but hopeful.
Jesus is not asking us to hate one another. This is a passage about love. Jesus is asking us to put love of Him, love of God, ahead of everything else – even family. And that’s consistent with the Gospel message to love. That is at the core of the Covenant between God and us, the core of the Old Covenant and the New. It is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind, and your soul and love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Put love of me first,” says Jesus. “I am the way, the truth and the life. Come to the source of all life. Become a channel for my love and you and all who are touched by this love will flourish. Put anything between you and this first love and you and those whom you touch will be blocked from the fullness of life that I have to offer.”
It’s still a difficult passage. The cost of discipleship is huge. It costs us by demanding that we give up what is familiar, no matter how fulfilling or how limiting the familiar is in our lives. We are to give up the familiar for what is unknown but which holds out the promise of great love and a life so abundant we can only, in moments of great faith, imagine what it might be like.
Discipleship requires us to turn to, to trust, and to put our lives in the hands of something we can’t yet see, something we can’t yet touch. Like the trapeze artist high above ground who is swinging back and forth on one bar, we are on an arc that demands us to let go of the old if we are to journey forward to the new.
We are called, believe it or not, to a win/win choice. Are we willing to pay the price? If we can’t see this now, we will in Jerusalem where the sun will set, where we will enter a tomb, but where we will be lifted, by the grace of God, in the dawn of resurrection to new life.
Believing in the promise of new life, can’t we then say to the newcomer at the door, “Come in. Let’s journey together. The risk is great, but the promise is greater.”