14 Jul 2013
“‘If [any one of you] comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, [then you] cannot be my disciple.’” (Luke 14:26) (+)
A couple of Saturdays ago I attended a worship service at the Jewish Community of Amherst Synagogue. In what was the equivalent of their sermon, the rabbi spoke about rabbinic machismo. He said that in the seminary you showed rabbinic machismo by accepting someone’s challenge to take any text they chose from the Bible and by finding some redeeming message to offer. He then said that the reading for the particular Saturday I was there was one such text that could test the bravest of rabbis. It was the story about Israel’s infidelity to God and God’s command that the “chiefs of the people” be impaled before him. Before God’s command was even out of Moses’ mouth, one such leader of the people entered the assembly. He was the “head of an ancestral house” of Israel and his foreign wife was the daughter of the head of a Midianite clan. Phinehas, a priest and grandson of Aaron, grabbed a spear and pierced the both of them through the stomach. (Num. 25: 1-15)
This is definitely not one of the most uplifting stories you can find in the Bible, but the nugget of inspiration that the rabbi found in this gruesome tale of violent fanaticism was the message that the law was applied evenly. It’s easy to punish the weak and powerless, but it’s dangerous to try and do the same with the connected, the wealthy, and the strong. In a world where too often money and might define right, this was a redeeming message even though the act itself remained reprehensible.
With this idea of rabbinic machismo in mind, let me turn to Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. Let us try and find the remnants of a teachable message in this rather severe passage. First of all we need to see that Jesus is half way through His journey to Jerusalem, a journey that He knows will not end well. And the journey is also Luke’s literary vehicle to move us from Galilee and Jesus the awe inspiring teacher to Jerusalem where He will become the despised false prophet who is crucified. And as He’s making His way to the holy city, we’re told that “great crowds were traveling with Him.” (Lk. 14:25) To all these people of varying degrees of interest and commitment Jesus stops, turns around, and addresses them. Right off He begins with an astounding statement: “‘If [any one of you] comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, [then you] cannot be my disciple.’”
Hate is not a word we usually associate with Jesus. He forgives the ones who crucify Him, but here He says His followers must hate everyone else as a condition of discipleship. Every other use of that strange word in the New Testament points the gun around. It is that others hate Jesus and His followers. This is the only instance where the good guys are doing the hating. Just as this word sounds strange to us today, it must have sounded equally out of place to those people following Jesus to Jerusalem. Say there were crowds of people following Jesus hoping that He would be the triumphant Messiah who would liberate Israel and establish heaven on earth, imagine there are not only 12 male disciples, but whole families in that crowd, try to imagine the looks between husbands and wives, between children and parents, “You must hate them,” says Jesus.
Before we go any further, I want to take us back to the story of Abraham and Isaac, the one where God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his very own son to Him. I hope you know the story, if not it can be found in Genesis 22. A great Danish theologian (S. Kierkegaard) wrote an essay in amazement over this startling encounter and he imagined all sorts of psychological responses to this act of a loving father nearly murdering his beloved son. One of those possibilities has Abraham turning his fatherly glance away from Isaac and then coming around full circle with wild and hate filled eyes. Isaac is terrified and cries out to God above for mercy. Then Abraham whispers only to himself, “O Lord in heaven, I thank Thee. After all it is better for [my son] to believe that I am a monster, rather than that he should lose faith in Thee.” (Fear and Trembling, p. 27)
Is Jesus doing something similar when He turns around to the crowds and speaks about the obligation to hate everyone else to be a true disciple? Is He sacrificing His reputation in their eyes in order to protect them from the trials ahead? Jesus may know that only the most committed of followers will be able to endure what’s going to take place in Jerusalem. Maybe this isn’t the time nor the place for families and children hoping for paradise on earth. Maybe for the struggle that lies ahead of Him and them maybe only those who have Jesus and nothing else will have any hope of coming through their trial intact. Is Jesus speaking words of hatred in order to protect the more casual of His followers from actual acts of hatred? I hope so. This is the only time Jesus speaks of hatred. It’s an anomaly. It’s out of place. It only seems to make sense in the context of His repeated message and example of love if He’s willing to sacrifice His reputation out of love for these people.
But this message isn’t only about Jesus. There’s a lesson here for us too. The words are harsh to hear, but they and this whole speech of Jesus speak of commitment. Jesus was willing to sacrifice the only thing He had, His reputation, for the sake of these people. This then becomes our example. Not the hating, but the idea of giving all that we can to God. Maybe it has to be put so strongly so that we can understand that we are called to a radical dedication to Christ, and maybe that’s necessary to shock us out of the doldrums of thinking that anything we give to God is enough and that He should be grateful for even that. [Theresa Girardi] Let us pray the words of John Wesley, maybe even cut it out of your Song Sheet and tape it to the refrigerator to remind you of what we need to be aiming at in our lives. So let us pray in Jesus’ name: “Do all you can, do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you can.” This is Jesus’ message to us today. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo