When I read gospel lessons like the one we’ve read today, I sometimes wonder what the disciples thought when Jesus spoke difficult words like these. I’m sure they were keenly interested in the success of Jesus’ mission and were delighted to see the large crowds that flocked to him. Being in the inner circle of a popular public figure like Jesus must have been very gratifying. As more and more people came to Jesus, it must have felt like confirmation of their own choice to leave everything to follow him. But I think they must have shaken their heads with confusion and disbelief when Jesus addressed those same crowds with words like these – words which could only have been off-putting for those who heard them: “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” (v.26). “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (v.27). “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v.33).
There are a couple of things we could say that might make these words slightly more bearable. First, we should note the context. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He senses the direction in which his ministry is heading and knows that if he continues to be faithful to it, he will face dangerous opposition. He may have had a clear sense that to continue on this path would mean certain suffering and even death. This awareness does not seem to have been shared by his followers; even his closest friends did not comprehend it. So who knows what these crowds thought they were doing by coming after him? They might have seen it as a protest march, leading to a clash between Galilee and Jerusalem, between peasants and people with power, between Jews and Romans, between Jesus and the establishment.[i] Or they might have seen it as a parade, a great celebration led by a popular charismatic leader with all kinds of opportunities for enjoying themselves along the way. Jesus’ harsh words to them may have been a bucket of cold water meant to douse their expectations and bring them back to reality.
Secondly, we should note that the phrase “to hate” is a Semitic expression which means “to turn away from, to detach oneself from.”[ii] It should not be taken literally. It does not intend to convey the emotion that we experience in the expression, “I hate you.” Such a message would be incongruous with Jesus’ clear call to love and not to hate, to bless and not to curse. Nor it to hate one’s own life a call for self-loathing. Bible scholar Fred B. Craddock explains, “What is demanded of disciples…is that in the network of many loyalties in which all of us live, the claim of Christ and the gospel not only takes precedence but, in fact, redefines the others. This can and will necessarily involve some detaching, some turning away.”[iii]
That interpretation might soften the blow – we’re not being asked to hate our parents or ourselves, literally – but it doesn’t take away the sting of these words entirely. Jesus is saying very clearly that there is a cost involved when committing to his cause; that there is a price to be paid in laying down our lives for others. As we know, over the centuries and even today, many have paid the cost with their very lives.
But we should not think that just because these words are difficult and challenge us to the core, they are not good news. Because Jesus’ own path shows us that death leads to life, and sacrifice leads to freedom, and that in the end, love always triumphs. We are not a people without hope. On the contrary, our hope is in the God who overcame death and the grave. This mystery lies at the heart of what we believe, and therefore we will not fear to count the cost and to lay aside all to follow him.
[i] Craddock, Fred B. Luke (Interpretation Commentary); (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1990), p.181
[iii] Ibid, p.182
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