If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).
What in the world is going on here? Most of us hear this passage and immediately try to deconstruct it for what it must be really saying. Surely, we say, this isn’t really about hate; it’s about priorities. So it’s not that we should hate our fathers and mothers and so on, but that we should not love them too much. And we can all think of examples where people (not us, obviously) do that.
To be fair, there does exist in Hebrew literary culture a tendency to hyperbole. So maybe there’s a bit of rhetorical exaggeration here in Jesus’ comments. But he still says what he says, and it’s still jarring, so it’s worth asking whether he really wants us to jump straight to the easier message of “get your priorities in order.”
I want to draw here from one of my old professors, Stanley Hauerwas, who is famous for never passing up an opportunity to say something provocative. In a piece called “Hating Mothers as the Way to Peace,” he points out how love is so often at the heart of conflict:
Our violence lies not in ourselves but in our loves. We think it crucial to protect those we love. Indeed, I suspect most of us go to war to protect our loves. Our families, our neighborhoods are what we care about when we go to war—nations are but symbols of those cares.
I’d guess this resonates with most of us. It is often the case that soldiers fight less for some idea about the nation or about virtue than in simple defense of those they love. Any father or mother, sister or brother gets this. And I often say that fatherhood brought out depths of anger that I never knew I had! I’m not just talking about the frustrations of children—I’m talking about this deeply ingrained fighting instinct against those who might in any way hurt my children.
We’re all familiar with that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Peter draws a sword to defend his Lord. We all want to do that. Love demands it. But, Jesus tells us, as he tells Peter there, this love has to be transformed.
Here’s Hauerwas again:
We no longer need desperately try to ensure the survival of those we love, for we can now love them with the security and the conviction that God’s kingdom is surely here. In short, Jesus brought the end time so that we may have the time to love without that love becoming the source of our violence.
Let’s put it this way: Christianity isn’t in the first instance about protecting the innocent. Yes, Catholic tradition is very strong in its recognition of and witness to natural kinds of justice. But such witness has more to do with authentic created human nature than it does with the gospel. In fact, the death and resurrection of Jesus have given us a fundamentally new context for any discussion of justice in the world. Our hope does not depend in any way on our success in preserving the innocent from suffering, or on stopping all injustice, or on protecting those we love.
After all, as a people we already done the worst thing we could possibly do. We killed God.
Sometimes, showing a rather casual forgetfulness of this huge cosmic history, modern Christians love to go around promoting causes. Sometimes they’re very good causes that should be promoted, like the integrity of the natural human family and the protection of children. But there is a danger here that we need to acknowledge. The chief task of the Church isn’t just going around declaring that this or that thing is bad. The chief task of the Church is to tell the world that the ultimate source of all this evil is the world’s rejection of Jesus. We can correct this or that injustice all day, but until we get to this most basic reality our work will always be incomplete.
Which brings us to our epistle, which is an excerpt from St. Paul’s short letter to Philemon. To refresh our memory, here’s the story. Philemon is a wealthy Christian who was converted through Paul’s ministry. Onesimus was his slave. Onesimus runs away, but while he is away he himself encounters Paul and becomes a Christian. Paul sends him back to his former master with this letter, which effectively says, Onesimus is now, like you, the slave of Christ. So treat him as such.
When you study this letter in an academic context, pretty quickly the discussion moves to the big question. Why doesn’t Paul just outright condemn slavery? It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t envision Onesimus just going back to his former life, but from a modern perspective it’s weird that Philemon isn’t called out for owning slaves in the first place. Cue the modern critics who see this as yet another example of how backward Christianity is.
But what if Paul understands that it’s not really sufficient for the Church simply to condemn an evil practice? What if he understands that what is at stake is not just something like getting our priorities in order or preventing suffering, but a radical new form of the human family centered on our incorporation into the resurrected Jesus? He who does not hate mother or father or sister or brother or slave or master or even life itself for my sake cannot be my disciple. The big picture matters. We can get our priorities in order, we can avoid loving things too much, but without Jesus none of this will matter very much. We can promote justice and make the world a better place, but without Jesus the world will still choose darkness rather than light.
The only way to avoid hate is to love Jesus first and above all else. Because it is only when we love people and things for his sake, and in his love, that those loves can become the real love that can last through death.