I think the powers-that-be assigned today’s text from the 14th chapter of Luke, a difficult one to hear, to Labor Day weekend because they were hoping there wouldn’t be many people in church, anyway, to hear it.
This text is a tough sell. We don’t like what we hear. We certainly don’t like to hear about giving up all our possessions, but what makes us most uncomfortable are these words: “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.”
Why the discomfort? I think it’s because Jesus doesn’t seem to be living up to our standard of how we should treat others. But from where do we get this standard? Why, from Jesus, of course!
So… we’re right to recognize that his comment doesn’t match his other actions and words. How do we explain this?
Trying to be helpful, my wife pointed out to me that what a man says isn’t always what he means.
For example, when a man says, “I don’t care what color you paint the kitchen,” he really means, “As long as it’s not blue, green, pin, red, yellow, lavender, gray, mauve, black, or any other color besides white.”
And when a man says, “I’m getting more exercise lately,” he really means, “I’ve lost the remote control.”
And when a man says, “Take a break, honey, you’re working too hard,” he really means, “I can’t hear the game over the noise of the vacuum cleaner.”
And when a man says, “Honey, we don’t need material things to prove our love,” he really means, “I forgot our anniversary again.”
And, finally, when a man says, “I can’t find it,” he really means, “It didn’t fall into my outstretched hands and so I’m completely clueless.”
All lightheartedness aside, how do we really make sense of this exchange between Jesus and his disciples?
Could it have happened this way?… some of Jesus’ disciples come to him complaining of the cost involved in following him. Perhaps some have heard from family members, “What’s wrong with the way we raised you? Why do you leave your family and your hometown to follow this Jesus fellow? Do you really hate us that much? Playing along, Jesus says, “So, you’ll have to hate your families to follow me?” Perhaps that’s how it played out.
Or maybe… it’s just exaggeration to make a point. Not unlike the coach who says to his team, “On this court, I’m God.” And what point is Jesus trying to make with this seemingly harsh exaggeration? Perhaps that discipleship can be costly.
Or just maybe it’s a matter of words not always meaning what they used to mean. Scholars have suggested that the Greek expression translated “to hate” really had the meaning in Jesus’ time of detaching oneself from another. Now that makes a certain amount of sense. To follow Jesus did mean detaching yourself from other commitments. Peter, after all, couldn’t follow Jesus all over the countryside and continue to fish with his dad as he had been doing previously.
So let’s not get hung up on the word “hate” and realize that Jesus is inviting us to consider our possessions, our priorities, and our relationships, and then to reflect on what it is that is hindering us from how we feel called to live freely and fully as children of God. For some that may mean feeling called to leave home as many a missionary has done. But for most it won’t mean that. Remember that for every travelling disciple Jesus had, he had many more followers who lived in their homes, worked at their jobs, and supported his ministry with food, lodging and no doubt cash. There are many disciples of Jesus living in this community and in communities around the globe to whom Jesus’ call might be to raise their children, to be an honest shop clerk, to farm the land so that others might eat, or any of a multitude of things.
This text invites us to reflect on what it will cost us to be a disciple of Jesus. As someone once said, “It doesn’t necessarily take much of a person to be a Christian. But it will take all of that person.” Amen.